Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

REVIEWED BY MATTHEW DALLAS
Last updated 14:51 01/02/2013
Zero Dark Thirty
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TOUGH NUT: Jessica Chastain enthrals as a drive CIA operative on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, a compelling, intelligent picture that will leave you behind if you're not careful.

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The Best Actress category at the Oscars is often the easiest nominations to predict, sadly because there are usually no more than five great female roles available each year.

And should there be only four, well, just add Meryl Streep to the list.

Regardless of whether she gets the gong or not later this month - though she surely has to - Jessica Chastain hit the jackpot with Zero Dark Thirty's Maya - arguably cinema's most intriguing, intelligent and uncompromised female character this side of Clarence Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

Chastain may never again be offered a role this meaty, and audiences won't see many better performances. It doesn't hurt that the film's a cracker too.

Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the C.I.A.'s 10-year hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in which Chastain's character progresses from anxious rookie agent to "the motherf**ker who found him", thanks to an unflagging belief in a tenuous lead.

We're told that the picture is based on first-hand accounts of real events and the fact the CIA is investigating how classified information found its way into the script would suggest the film-makers have gone to considerable lengths to achieve authenticity.

That being said, I have no idea if Maya is based on a particular hot-shot agent, a consolidation of several key players, or just a well-written fantasy.

And I don't really care, because it makes for dynamic cinema and a smart, tenacious leading lady. Lord knows, Hollywood could do with more of them.

Director Kathryn Bigelow, who previously impressed with Iraq bomb squad pressure cooker The Hurt Locker, has again teamed up with writer Mark Boal to address The War on Terror in a thought-provoking way, even when we've seen the climax play out on the six o'clock news.

The picture progresses at a brisk pace, jumping in and out of key events, decisions and discoveries. There's very little exposition or explanation for what's going on. Viewers need to keep their heads in the game.

Maya and her team face cultural, ethical and political obstacles as they amass intel from prisoners and informants, never quite knowing if they're inching closer to bin Laden's inner circle or being led to a dead end - literally in the case of the Camp Chapman attack.

But for the most part, the work of the C.I.A. is depicted as unflashy office-bound analysis, highly stressful due to the stakes, and potentially soul destroying. There is no hint of agents having lives outside the agency, and Maya scoffs at the suggestion she have a fling with a workmate.

Many (male) film-makers wouldn't have been able to resist casting her as the 'ambitious, asexual uber-bitch' we've seen so many times before. Refreshingly, Maya is simply a driven professional who understands the responsibility of her task.

Much has been about the controversial depiction of torture, which mostly consists of waterboarding near the start of the film. It has raised ire both from the military who claim it was never carried out by US agents while pursuing bin Laden, and by those who feel Zero Dark Thirty advocates such practices.

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Certainly, the film makes no bones about the fact the C.I.A. lost a somewhat-effective intel-gathering tool when the Obama regime swept in and neutered interrogation methods, but the picture's stance is more about provoking conversation: Does the end justify the means?

Frustration is palpable when the suits in Washington, still smarting from getting it wrong about WMDs in Iraq, dither for months over whether to send a Navy SEAL team into bid Laden's suspected safe house.

The eventual strike, bookending the picture with the audio recordings of emergency calls from doomed 9/11 victims, is both a cathartic denouement and as gripping an action sequence likely to be seen in cinemas this year.

 Starring Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Fares Fares, Édgar Ramírez, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt. 157 minutes, rated M (violence, offensive language).

- © Fairfax NZ News

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