Genre: Drama, History, Thriller
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
September 11, 2001. A 911 operator receives a terrifying call – a plane has crashed into the Twin Towers. Another call – a petrified woman screams down the phone, claiming she’s going to die, she can’t breathe, no one can escape. Then silence. Two years later a Middle Eastern man is strapped to a chair in a hollow room at a CIA Black Site. An Agent demands answers from him – he refuses to give them. The Agent looks at his team, all wearing balaclavas. The team begin to strap this man to the ceiling. The Agent leaves the room and a concealed team member follows. They enter fresh air, the team member removes their mask, and it’s a woman, clearly not happy with proceedings. She’s adamant she can handle this and they re-enter. The prisoner is now hung from the ceiling. The interrogation begins but they fail to get their answers. A towel is wrapped around the prisoner’s head, water poured onto it. The question they need to know becomes clear as the Agent hollers it at him – ‘when was the last time you saw Bin Laden?‘
Right from the offset you understand what you’re in for with Zero Dark Thirty. The film has been clouded in controversy with regards to the way it depicts torture and it poses the question immediately – is it acceptable to treat prisoners this way to extract pivotal information? It’s grim, it’s tough to watch, and the point of using a female lead to highlight that really does work. The film shows ten years of the manhunt for the world’s most wanted man and within theses ten years was the appointment of Barack Obama, the man that wiped the detainee programme, allowing this sort of behaviour to stop.
After witnessing the interrogation, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is taken to her new place of work in Pakistan. She’s part of the detainee scheme that’s charged with preventing future attacks. She quickly falls into the routine and begins to track Al Qaeda personnel through the use of torture and intense interrogation. After an attack in a Saudi Arabian hotel, they capture a member of the group who’s sent into a potential meet with one of Bin Laden’s top men. They attempt to extract information from this man but he refuses to give anything up. It’s midway through this that Obama is elected and the detainee programme is shut down. Agent Dan (Jason Clarke) leaves the Middle East and returns home but Maya continues on her quest. Despite setbacks, she won’t give up.
After a tip off, they track a potential courier who unwittingly leads them to a compound containing three families. With the house under surveillance Maya believes that one of the men inside is Bin Laden, but she must convince her superiors of the same thing. If Bin Laden is in there she could make history, but if he isn’t she could create a terrible blunder for the organisation.
This is supposedly based on fact, but there are many moments that seem fairly glossed over. It’ll always be hard to decipher what is true and what isn’t, especially with many unwilling to admit the methods used to extract information. It’s fascinating to see how hard people worked, despite it being highly controversial, and how so many people had different theories or work ethics that caused conflict among the team that should’ve been working together to keep people safe.
It doesn’t feel like a political movie, which is odd considering it centres on using deadly methods to find the world’s most dangerous man. This is a film through the eyes of one person who was so determined to achieve her goal that she made it her life mission. The story is about how she transformed from a woman struggling to cope with a means of interrogation, to a woman who will do whatever it takes.
Knowing the outcome of this film doesn’t take away from the impact that it has. It leaves you with an uneasy feeling, which I believe is what the director intended. It was a good film with many intense scenes and some excellent direction, but overall it’s a film that I struggled to define. There are several reasons for this: the subject matter, the questions it raises, the performances, the script, the direction, critical response, controversial responses, and the fact that it all feels too relevant and far too current. Not all of the things on this list are good components of the film and, if anything, are the reasons you feel slightly hollow after watching it. It’s a tough, emotional film that at the same time seems empty and disjointed.
I don’t believe it deserves the award acclaim it’s receiving. The filmmaking is at times excellent, but there are moments that are very uninspiring – something Bigelow’s previous film The Hurt Locker didn’t have a problem with. The performances were good but Chastain’s character was not worthy of any awards, let alone an Oscar. She’s fairly decent in the role but not once did I care for her character.
If anything the most interesting character takes a back seat early on. Jason Clarke’s character, Dan, is instantly the most interesting. He has the best lines and, despite being in his line of work, treats it as just that. When he disappeared it all became slightly less interesting because the character of Maya wasn’t so intriguing.
The final scene is so well done and suspenseful that I suggest seeing it for that alone. Bigelow’s choice to use night vision for large portions of it really makes you feel as if you’re one of the soldiers. This film is a statement at society and for that reason it isn’t particularly enjoyable, but you can’t discredit the final scenes and the fact that it’s incredibly thought provoking.
A good film that makes far too much of an impact to be gratifying on an entertainment level.