The pre-release build-up to Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to Oscar-winning thriller The Hurt Locker, has, particularly in the American media, been laden with controversy, but in actual fact there is little controversial about the film at all. It doesn’t over-indulge in, or support, torture; suggestions that it does are not only missing the point, but bringing rather serious accusations against a film which simply doesn’t deserve them. Despite its topical subject matter – the hunt for Osama bin Laden – it is, above anything else, about a woman.
That woman is Maya, a CIA operative who, at the beginning of the film, is relatively green. We see her flinching during the film’s opening depiction of torture, as her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) presses a captured suspect for information at a CIA ‘black site’ – information that might, they believe, help lead American forces to the hideout of Osama bin Laden. From this point onwards, Maya is the constant element in the film, as Mark Boal’s script takes us through a series of time jumps leading up to the well-documented assault on bin Laden’s walled enclosure.
Although the story is ostensibly about the trailing and killing of Osama bin Laden, it’s wisest choice is to focus on its leading lady. It is Jessica Chastain’s performance as Maya – and, to a lesser extent, the excellent supporting cast – that holds the links in the narrative chain together, and also prevents the film’s procedural elements from falling into monotony. We see her grow into a more hardened woman as time goes by, but she gives the film a heart it would otherwise not have had. It’s not a showy performance, but it is a very good one, and without it the film would have struggled to prevent itself falling into glossy faux-documentary territory.
Given the fact that most of the film’s narrative is unavoidably telegraphed from the beginning, it struggles a little to build up a level of tension, meaning the final act, though well shot and convincingly recreated, lacks an edge; although, that said, the shots of stealth helicopters hugging the Pakistani countryside in almost complete darkness are broodingly effective.
In the event, the film’s ambiguous morality is perhaps responsible for its feeling slightly detached. Bigelow tells the story very well, very efficiently, but doesn’t really say much about it, which is ironic given the response to the film in some quarters. It’s much more about showing than telling, and while that isn’t much of a criticism in itself (allowing the viewer to make up their own mind is in many instances a great thing), it does mean the thriller element gets diluted a little. But thankfully Bigelow isn’t ambiguous about her main character, and therein lies the strength of the piece.
Crucially, we finish not with a shot of bin Laden’s body splayed out in a military hangar, but a beautifully well-judged character moment, confirming at the close that Maya – not bin Laden – has been the film’s primary concern all along, and Bigelow’s film is all the better for it.