Kathryn Bigelow | 2hr 37min
It was a full 10 years between the September 11 attacks and the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, but given the anonymity of the CIA operatives involved, the details of the people involved largely remain hazy. It is clear that Kathryn Bigelow is not purporting to deliver a fully accurate account of these events in Zero Dark Thirty, though this is no obstacle to her exacting study of every detail pointing to his location. Time stamps, locations, and chapter titles sort through the historical facts, setting up a slow burn of an investigation akin to All the President’s Men that similarly circles an infamous man hiding within walls of secrets. And much like the exposé that took down President Richard Nixon, all it takes is one opening in Bin Laden’s defences to unravel a trail of clues leading to his door.
It is in the CIA officers and analysts of Zero Dark Thirty where Bigelow indulges a little creative licence, setting up the character of Maya Harris as the unrelenting force behind the hunt for Bin Laden, while her colleagues waver in their focus. Integrity is not highly valued among these intelligence agents, and Bigelow does not hold back in depicting the physical and psychological torture to which they subject detainees. Though Maya expresses a little more disgust and hesitancy in these unethical methods, she is not entirely inculpable either. Rather than trying to justify her protagonist on some personal level, Bigelow resists probing into her mind, keeping us at a disquieting distance.
As we eventually learn though, Maya has no friends, and with this piece of information it isn’t hard to surmise that all of her energy instead goes into her gruelling, tiresome work. Any empathy we might feel towards her comes not from the screenplay, but rather from Jessica Chastain’s steady, reserved performance, bearing the emotional toll of a thankless job that sees her lose several of her colleagues in terrorist attacks, while becoming a target herself. Most importantly though, it is the intuition and confidence she instils in Maya that makes her such a magnetic figure, willing to place 100% of her certainty in hunches where others are only ready to give soft 60s.
Chastain makes for an especially good match for Zero Dark Thirty’s realistic style, playing the material about as natural as Bigelow’s handheld camera and location shooting. The seamless inclusion of archival footage only grounds us deeper in the war on terror, supplemented by helicopter shots of cities, camps, and compounds that expand it out into something monumental. Though the final, giant set piece depicting the stealthy raid on Bin Laden’s compound is suspenseful in its uneasy quietude, it is just as much the time we have spent working through every tiny detail to get there that makes the result feel so rewarding. Such is Bigelow’s fine control over action-driven sequences that even as Zero Dark Thirty delivers on its raw thrills, she also manages to coordinate them remarkably tightly in her narrative’s ambitious, driving pursuit of justice.
Zero Dark Thirty is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, Binge, and Foxtel Now, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.