In her follow up to The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow examines the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11, focusing on Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her dogged determination to see the job through.
There has been a lot of talk about Zero Dark Thirty, not least because the film has been nominated for five Academy Awards. A lot of the debate centres on whether the film has been made too soon after the events took place, and also whether the film is entirely historically accurate.
The story is one that we are (mostly) familiar with. Osama Bin Laden went from ally to enemy of the US, and burst into public consciousness within hours of New York’s World Trade Centre being destroyed. Rather than look at the politics and the reasons for the US led invasion of Afghanistan, Bigelow’s film focuses on the microcosm; the people on the ground leading the search for the world’s most wanted man.
Chastain, as ever, is gripping as Maya. The problem is that the character feels incredibly familiar, since the acclaimed TV show Homeland hit our screens. Maya is nowhere near as hysterical as her small screen counterpart – played by Claire Danes – but it is hard to deny that an obsessed woman looking for terrorists in Afghanistan is familiar. Chastain does not have as much characterisation to play with; we are told that Maya is a single woman with few attachments in her personal life. Since the film focuses on the hunt, not the characters, Chastain is given precious few chances to be anything more than a vessel for the story. That said, she does well with what she is given, and her fierceness and determination reflect the feelings of many.
Chastain supporting cast is immense; Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, John Barrowman, Joel Edgerton and Mark Duplass make appearances throughout the film. Each is given little more than a moment to make their mark, and some do better than others.
Mark Boal’s screenplay addresses some events we are familiar with, and others that we may have only heard of, such as the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. The interesting thing is how these are dealt with. Instead of us seeing the well-known images of 9/11, we are only allowed to hear phone calls made from the stricken buildings, but events we may not be as familiar with are dealt with in detail. This is actually one of the flaws of the film. Yes, it gives the audience a sense of how time consuming and gruelling the search of the Al-Quaeda leader was, but this attention to detail serves to clutter up the film and drag out the running time.
There is no doubt that director Kathryn Bigelow creates an environment on screen that feels real, but so many characters come and go, and Maya jumps from country to country so often, that the audience may find themselves wondering where all this is leading to, and it is sometimes hard to keep track of events. That said, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do not shy away from showing the US in an unfavourable light, which serves to tone down the inevitable flag waving that could accompany the film.
The final hour is what redeems Zero Dark Thirty. Once Osama Bin Laden’s courier is identified, and the surveillance mission begins, the tension is ramped right up to 11. Even though the audience knows this story, and knows what the outcome will be, Bigelow manages to have us on the edge of our seats, waiting to see how the action will play out. It is just a shame that this sense of urgency and the tight pacing of this section did not translate to the rest of the film.
In all, Zero Dark Thirty is an interesting examination of the aftermath of an event that heavily influenced our world. Jessica Chastain ably carries the film – although her character is not given a lot of room to grow – and her supporting cast do just that. Where the film suffers, is in an overly long running time, audience familiarity – through reporting of the events and the inevitable comparisons to Homeland – and underdeveloped characters. The final hour, however, is tense, gripping and saves the film from mediocrity.