Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s long-anticipated release after her Oscar-winning effort, The bazaars, in 2008, is worth the wait. The war film sidesteps commentary and skilfully follows the disappointments and breakthroughs in the decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden by intelligence officials and US navy SEALs.
Bigelow, the first woman to win an Academy Award for direction, teams up once again with war journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal in this production.
The film takes you straight to the moment in time without digressing into background stories or elaborate character sketches. The CIA team is posted in Pakistan, where Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young agent, is sent to work with tough investigator Dan (Jason Clarke). Together, they question detainees at “black sites” (secret prisons) to get leads on the Saudi terrorists involved in plotting 9/11 with bin Laden. The team is led by Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), whose focus on preventing further attacks on the US rather than on eliminating bin Laden leads to frequent clashes with Maya.
Maya is the first in the team to understand the importance of knowing and exploiting the cultures and mindsets they are dealing with. As the movie proceeds, she begins accessorising her prim worksuits with headscarves and gets familiar with Pakistan but not enough to trust the local cuisine. “Don’t eat out, it’s too dangerous,” she warns, while scanning photographs of top terror suspects. The hesitant young recruit transforms seamlessly into a driven, pushy investigator. Chastain puts in what is easily one of her best performances and her restraint is commendable. While the film has been nominated for five Academy Awards including best actress, Bigelow is unexpectedly not in the running for best director.
ZDT, whose title is an allusion to the dark hours before sunrise when the Abbottabad raid was conducted, could be a frustrating watch for those looking for a pacy, action-packed film. While the film is engaging, it does not overwhelm. There is a lot of anxious waiting and emotions are kept on a leash. The film offers an often rickety view of the mission, as if you are peering at it from a distance. The camerawork befits the top secret setting but its overuse also creates a tedious effect. Colour is minimal — even scenes that depict crowded bazaars in Pakistan are mostly restricted to brown, beige and grey.
Controversies have surrounded the film, which was hastily slammed by some for portraying torture as an effective means of investigation. It does show the method as bearing some results but does not tout it as unfailing or even acceptable. An important breakthrough in the case, in fact, comes from the chance discovery of old documents, not torture. Bigelow also makes a subtle point through Dan, who eventually departs from the field operation, tired of employing reckless tactics.
The revisiting of terror attacks in Saudi Arabia, London and Pakistan ties the plot together, adding to the tension. At no point do the characters lament or lecture. In the final sequence, however, the realistic film acquires a Hollywood flavour, with SEALs absurdly whispering “Osama!, Osama!” to coax the man out of hiding.
ZDT was made using actual accounts, mostly from CIA agents, so it couldn’t have been easy to tell the saga without sounding invested in the idea of the war on terror. But Boal and Bigelow pull it off. By following Maya, the story becomes one of a woman who saw a difficult operation through to its finish. The task at hand here just happens to be getting the number one man on FBI’s most wanted list.
ZDT does not celebrate the US triumph as much as it does Maya’s eventual sigh of relief.