Zero Dark Thirty (2013)

Zero Dark ThirtyTwo years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) is reassigned to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan to help track down Osama Bin Laden. Initially uneasy with her colleagues’ methods, Maya becomes increasingly obsessed with her work — eventually utilising torture herself — as her department becomes smaller and smaller. After a decade-long struggle — often against her own government as much as Al-Qaeda — she finally tracks her target to a small compound in Abbottabad.

If you’ve picked up a newspaper or turned on the news in the last few months then you’ll no doubt be familiar with Zero Dark Thirty, the latest project from The Hurt Locker‘s Katherine Bigelow. Does the film promote torture, the commentators ask? Was its director given undue access to classified information? Is it really an accurate depiction of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden?

Turn to the reviews, however, and you will learn that the film has been nominated for a number of awards, and that it features a night-vision finale that manages to thrill even when the audience already knows the outcome. That’s because once you’ve cut through the controversy and credibility there’s not actually all that much left to say on the subject of Zero Dark Thirty. It never tries to be incredible.

With a plot lifted from the last twelve years of American military history, characters drawn from little more than code-names mentioned in recently declassified documentation, and debatable themes that are expressly denied by its director, Zero Dark Thirty often feels more like documentation than dramatisation: intelligent but inaccessible, as journalist Mark Boal’s screenplay shows little interest in context (beyond signposts for undisclosed locations).

Although sometimes referred to as The Bin Laden Movie, Zero Dark Thirty actually purports to be the story of Maya, a character based on a real analyst who is known only by the pseudonym Jen. This is at least the case for the first two or so hours of the film, until reality dictates that Maya is left in Pakistan while a hastily introduced team of U.S. Navy SEALs set off in helicopters from Area 51 to terminate “OBL” — even if Chastain does stick around for the occasional reaction shot.

But the question of what Zero Dark Thirty is actually about is an interesting one; far more interesting than the degree to which it is accurate. The film is almost certainly not about Maya. Chastain puts in a commendable performance (backed by the able likes of Mark Strong and James Gandalfini), but little is gleaned about her character’s history or motivations, beyond her obsession with Bin Laden. She is cut from the same template as Homeland‘s Carrie Matheson, only without the histrionics and interesting relationships.

Nor is the film about the terrorist himself. Opening with reportedly genuine auditory samples from 9/11, the film largely relies on your own knowledge of Al-Qaeda’s attrocities to inform your opinion on Bin Laden. We see interrogations with captured members, as well as the 7/7 and Camp Chapman attacks, but are never permitted to see anything of  the man himself — not even during the raid on his compound.

Hastily adapted from an existing script about the (at that stage failed) attempt to track down Bin Laden, the main point to Zero Dark Thirty seems to be little more than its being first on the scene. If Bigelow’s film is not about its characters, its villain or — as she insists — its depiction of torture, then its not about much of anything at all, beyond finding and killing the man responsible for one of the worst acts of terrorism of the 21st Century. Deep stuff.

While not without its considerable merits (that last act really is thrilling), Zero Dark Thirty is an unfocused and unwieldy mess of a film that doesn’t try hard enough to adapt current events for the big screen. Whereas some see it as a brave, ambiguous and objective piece of work, I couldn’t help but find it rushed, confused and deeply unengaging. I doubt it will be the last film to draw from the War On Terror, and it almost certainly won’t be the best.



About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

One Response to Zero Dark Thirty (2013)

  1. Pingback: January 2013 – Buzzards’ guts, man! « popcornaddict

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