Film review: Zero Dark Thirty

19:36, Jan 31 2013
Zero Dark Thirty
ZERO DARK THIRTY: Jessica Chastain stars in the film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty (M) 157 minutes

Controversy has followed Zero Dark Thirty around like a puppy, since even before its release in US theatres late last year. It's a story that lingers heavy in the hearts and minds of the American public (and indeed, one that has gripped the world).

Director Kathryn Bigelow trudges into the recent history of the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden and has come under scrutiny for the way she has depicted torture in the film.

The scenes in question come early on. Bigelow begins the film by plunging us back into the darkness of 2011. The screen is black and our focus is on the audio from victims trapped inside the World Trade Center. It's to remind us - as if we need it - of the atrocities of that September day and possibly to try to justify the occurrences of the next scene - a drawn-out torture act.

We meet Dan (Jason Clarke) who has the gargantuan task of capturing or killing bin Laden. His interrogation methods include water-boarding a prisoner to extract information from him. Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young agent and our protagonist, watches over him, wincing but not stopping the violence.

It's not that the torture scenes are particularly gruesome, it's that they are such a controversial and hotly debated part of the whole operation. Some have said Bigelow's portrayal lends too much weight to the role of torture in the search for bin Laden. Others have suggested Bigelow has taken liberties with the truth to create art.

Fact or fiction, Zero Dark Thirty is a marvellous piece of cinema.

Maya, based on a real agent, has an upfront and tough demeanour that is put into play instantly as she pursues a lead to find bin Laden. Her past is veiled; we don't know what kind of life she has back in America. But her relentless pursuit swallows up every aspect of her life.

Chastain is brilliant as Maya, wearing her emotions as expressions; at times utterly overwhelmed by her situation and at others, adorning a fierce and steely resolve. Chastain has made some heavy film choices thus far, namely The Tree of Life, The Help and Take Shelter. The roles have earned her a hefty swag of nominations and awards and Zero Dark Thirty seems to be doubling the loot.

She stars alongside a solid cast including Joel Edgerton as Patrick, a Red Squadron team leader; Kyle Chandler as Joseph Bradley, CIA Islamabad station chief; Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, Maya's friend in the field; and James Gandolfini, who makes a quick cameo as US Secretary of Defence.

This is the second time Bigelow has paired with writer Mark Boal, following their collaboration on the acclaimed The Hurt Locker (which saw Bigelow become the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing).

The sequences are broken into chapters, which is a good way to deal with time jumping around, and the pacing is impeccable - heavy on action then easing off for us to take a breather.

The slower scenes are just as captivating as the adrenaline-slathered action scenes and the treatment of the raid is perfectly drawn out. Even though we know the outcome, throughout the 20 or so minutes of the final act, much of which we see through night-vision goggles, we hold our breath.

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