Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty
By Edwin Davies
December 19, 2012
Bigelow and Boal's approach is more journalistic than it is editorial: they are interested in depicting the events with as much verisimilitude as possible and letting the audience decide what to make of them. To that end, Zero Dark Thirty is a meticulous film about the long, slow process of trying to find a man who helped to orchestrate an unthinkable tragedy, then seemed to disappear from the face of the Earth. Bigelow's stripped-down, dusty visual style perfectly complements this approach by drawing out the small details of the story; the cramped, dirty rooms in which the investigation is carried out, the crowded, quietly hostile streets of Pakistan, the ordinary details of everyday life that are shockingly destroyed by an attack. You can feel the heat and the desperation oozing out of the screen.
The closest analogues for the film are probably David Fincher's Zodiac or Alan Pakula's All The President's Men; necessarily episodic stories about obsessives who doggedly sought out the truth (though Maya's search is ultimately somewhat more successful than Robert Graysmith's). There's a real sense of what a grinding, fruitless task it must be to sift through countless leads and find one that seems to hold some promise, only to see it wither on the vine as no one realizes its potential importance. It's that focus on the minutiae of the job that makes the film such an engrossing experience.
It's also in no small part due to Jessica Chastain's superb performance as Maya, both because she's in almost every scene of the film, and because the film covers such a broad stretch of time, that the lead needs to convey Maya's fierce dedication in the face of colleagues who doubt her instincts, and the enemies who threaten her life. Chastain delivers in spades, creating a character who is believably weary by the end of the film, whilst never losing sight of the intense fervour that drives her. Also, as a woman in a world - and a film - dominated by men (played by the likes of Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini and Mark Strong), she has to be the strongest, toughest person in every room. The dialogue avoids the pitfall of sounding like traditional action fare, aiming instead for realism above all else, but there is still the odd line here or there which could have been unintentionally hilarious if delivered by anyone who wasn't completely convincing. Chastain convinces fully (and also nails the lines that are intentionally funny lines as well).
Though the discussion of Zero Dark Thirty will continue to focus on one relatively small aspect of its story, hopefully it will not overshadow what an exhilarating, tense and enthralling film it is. Kathryn Bigelow is probably the best action director working today, and she once again demonstrates her mastery at creating indelibly tense sequences - from a standoff in a Pakistani back street to the prolonged, unbearably quiet raid on bin Laden's compound - whilst embedding them naturally in a character study that is as compelling as the investigation the characters are involved with.
More important, it is a mainstream, accessible film that tries to engage honestly with America's recent history, particularly the terrible things that were done out of anger, fear and a lust for vengeance in the wake of a previously unimaginable tragedy. It exposes, rather than condones or condemns, such actions by dragging them out of the darkness and into the light of the multiplex so that they might be better understood. It's a difficult, vital film whose attempts to get to grips with the past should be part of a broader cultural conversation, one that should include torture but, like the film itself is not merely about torture.