Zero Dark Thirty follows the hunt for Osama bin Laden from 2001 to 2011. Jessica Chastain’s Maya is our protagonist. She starts working for the CIA in 2001, when torture is being used as a method of extracting information from prisoners. We follow her right through to the killing of bin Laden in 2011.
The first act of the film, where we are introduced to Maya and Dan, and see how the CIA is operating, was good. I was engaged. It was jargon heavy, but I assume this is necessary in most war films.
Where I really struggled was the second act, when the hunt for bin Laden became hollywoodised. I can cope with Maya being portrayed as the strong, smart woman who won’t give up, but as we dive more into the narrative Maya’s character started to evolve into a cliché. She struggled against the odds and her motivation became vengeance. I literally cringed when she said “I’m going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I’m going to kill bin Laden”.
The best part of the film was the final act when the attack on the compound was carried out. This is where the film’s realism and grittiness finally shone through. The portrayal of the attack was gripping. It had me on the edge of my seat, and I believe that this part of the film was Oscar worthy.
The film was slow in some places, I’m sure that some of the slowness is a necessary reflection of the narrative. The audience feels Maya’s frustration when the hunt goes nowhere, as she waits, as she sifts through mountains of evidence. Maya is not an automatically likeable character, she is morally ambiguous. Bigelow does not guide the audience toward a position; the film is neutral in political stance. I’m not typically a fan of war or political movies, and we all know what happens to bin Laden in the end. So the fact that this film kept me entertained and on the edge of my seat during the final act is a testament to Kathryn Bigelow’s film making.
Mark Kermode’s review of Zero Dark Thirty is worth a watch. I agree with his take on the torture debate.
Have you seen Zero Dark Thirty? What did you think of it?