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Zero Dark Thirty - Film Review

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by Matt Elliot Taylor (subscribe)
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon
Published January 24th 2013
From Bigelow to Bin Laden and Everything In Between
Theatrical Release Poster (image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Under the blanket of political unrest lies a realm of horror and tragedy untold by the movie camera; that is until Kathryn Bigelow decided her follow-up to the critically acclaimed war docudrama The Hurt Locker [2008] would be the similarly conceived Zero Dark Thirty. And with the Oscars just around the corner, it's no wonder that such a topical and politically-charged subject (i.e. the manhunt for Bin Laden) would make good fodder for this year's awards. Having already won a Golden Globe award for Jessica Chastain's firm performance, hype is already in fifth gear gliding all the way to the red carpet.

Presented in a style similar to that of her previous aforementioned effort - a war drama that focuses on a bomb squad in Iraq - the film begins during prisoner interrogations RE: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, where everyone is on alert, everyone is ready to surge, and everyone is a suspect. Through a series of brash, overt and sometimes violent servings of justice, Chastain's driven CIA analyst Maya must go undercover and track down the man ultimately responsible for the murder of at least 3000 people on that unforgettable day. To reach him however, she must endure what would become a decade-long manhunt that would see many key Al Quaeda affiliates be brought to justice. With identities concealed and leads running cold, Maya adopts extreme and dangerous methods of investigation. Her arduous struggle culminates in a spectacularly orchestrated final sequence where Seal Team Six successfully assassinate Osama Bin Laden.

"A little bit to the left ... Now a little bit to the right ... Perfect!"

From a political and patriotic point-of-view the film seems to behave as a vehicle for voicing the large scale reaction to international terrorism. It is a justice film, meaning that Maya's character represents every westerner's thirst for justice and revenge. With a quiet tension brewing in every scene, shocking moments of violent retribution and cold-blooded murder in the form of hotel bombings and other miscellaneous bouts of Middle Eastern malice will startle and upset, but for all the right reasons. It's a shame though that while this tone worked well for the bomb-drenched Hurt Locker, it's a bit of a hit-and-miss here (quite literally). At times, it feels like that we're watching the manhunt unfold in real time - with a very Q&A-esque plot that casually moves along until we're waiting for the next big explosion or torturous interrogation that we hope is the last one before Bin Laden is finally killed. Concluding 157 minutes later, it is as much an trying journey for the audience as it is for the characters in the story.

As Mark Boal's questionable screenplay focuses on the central character of Maya, other supporting characters that should otherwise have a stronger influence on the dramatic nature of the story seem to fall by the wayside. As a result, 20 minutes after seeing the film any memory you have of other characters become overshadowed by the presence of the spotlighted Maya. This is nothing against Chastain's performance mind you, but rather an indication of a script that's not quite balanced enough. Filmed in a handheld documentary-type style with little to no soundtrack to over-dramatise the action, there is a raw quality about the story that seems untapped outside the world of Bigelow's film resume. While the shaky movement of the camera can become irritating for some at times, it serves to enhance the realism and put us there in the moment - this is particularly effective in scenes with an explosive finish.

Seal Team Six infiltrate the compound believed to be housing Bin Laden (image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Zero Dark Thirty is certainly not a bad film, but it's not a great one either. Bigelow has a great handle on the material (despite whether it's speculative, factual or anything in between), and the scope of such an important and interesting subject is realised even if it is ambitious. Perhaps Bigelow would have succeeded in obtaining a more effective closure if it wasn't for the inconvenience of 'classified' information. Much of the criticism the film has received thus far has had to do with the speculative nature of the material and the alleged endorsement of torture as a means of interrogation. While these may be outlandish and provocative claims, it cannot be ignored that the violent scenes are brutal, aggressive and without mercy. The fact versus fiction debate aside, it serves to upgrade the tension and urgency of the situation. While it's a difficult film to enjoy, it's a film to see for the same reason it was made: to find closure.

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Why? To find closure
When: January 31st (Wide National Release)
Where: Your local cinema
Cost: Check your local cinema for details
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