‘Many actresses could fail to display the sheer backbone and power of a character who is often undermined, patronised and trodden on in her efforts’
Following up the huge success of The Hurt Locker was going to be no mean feat for the professed ‘macho’ director, Kathryn Bigelow. Her portrayal of bomb disposal squads in the midst of conflict remains to be one of the most gripping, thoughtful and downright entertaining war films in contemporary cinema. This eagerly anticipated follow up tells the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden from the perspective of Maya, a CIA operative hellbent on reeling in the most wanted man in history, as the film’s promotional material duly points out.
First off, Jessica Chastain is invisible in her role. At no point did it appear to be a ‘performance’ of any kind, just pure and convincing. She portrays Maya with such a burning intensity it would be excusable to feel fearful for anyone who may cross her path. People do, however, cross her path and it’s here that Chastain really comes into her own as an actress worthy of the highest acclaim. Many actresses could fail to display the sheer backbone and power of a character who is often undermined, patronised and trodden on in her efforts. Chastain has no such problem, carrying the bulk of the narrative on her shoulders and ensuring that whilst she is on screen (which is a lot) the audience hang on her every word and follow every glance.
So the film has its focal point in Maya, and a fine focal point it is. Bigelow directs with astute patience that is oft overlooked in modern day Hollywood. This patient approach to the story ensures that Zero Dark Thirty rarely gets dull or stuck in the mud. Considering this film is one in which the outcome is already known, it’s a sublime achievement that Bigelow is able to elicit so much tension and dramatic pay-off from each scene. Some of this can be attributed by great attention to detail in terms of the sets and environments, which are at once worlds away but instantly recognisable. Real news footage is used to correspond the film’s events with recent history that still sits heavy on the mind of those involved. This brings about an unnerving air of truth and grounded realism to the film, which in turn serves the purpose of reminding its audience that what they’re watching is an evocative (albeit entertaining) document of real life events brought about by acts of utter monstrosity.
One issue with Zero Dark Thirty is the running time, and this seems to be a recurring issue with mainstream cinema lately (looking squarely at The Hobbit, Django Unchained, countless others). There’s no arguing that the final forty minutes of the film is a highlight and a stellar example of tension culminating in a climactic sequence bound to set audience’s hearts racing, however what takes away from the enjoyment of said sequence is the fact the audience won’t be able to feel the lower half of their bodies through sheer numbness. That said, it is still an excellent, perfectly executed sequence with huge reward, which does go some way towards making up for the long running time. Admittedly also, a film trying to tell such a vast and meandering story perhaps warrants an elongated running time.
So there it is, those with patience and a keen interest in the story being told are going to be enthralled by what they see here. Unfortunately, it may alienate those who have popped along for the ride hopeful of an action packed depiction of flat out war. Even for those, there is plenty to reap from an actress who is at the top of her game and a director who just knows how to be bold and ruthless in her filmmaking. Zero Dark Thirty is a fine piece of cinema that goes far beyond expectations to be compelling, brave and ultimately rewarding.