Zero Dark Thirty – Bigelow and Boal on the hunt for the world’s most dangerous man

Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, The Hurt Locker; a portrayal of how war affects and consumes different people, deservedly won an Oscar for Best Picture and earned her a Best Director Oscar (and made her the first female director to win the accolade). Her new film, Zero Dark Thirty, which like The Hurt Locker is also written by Mark Boal, is similarly up for Best Picture at the Oscars. However rather than focusing solely on a war, Zero Dark Thirty is instead about the attempts to track down Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The story follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who has been reassigned to Pakistan. She begins under the guidance of fellow officer Dan (Jason Clarke), a ruthless man who knows that there is only one way to get answers out of suspects, no matter how appalling his methods might seem. Over a period of many years, Maya gradually becomes more and more engulfed in the hunt for Osama, obsessed with finding the person who has become a figurehead of hatred for a nation.

Bigelow and Boal’s depiction of the real life events that followed is one of the most intense and gripping films you are likely to see. It is also one of the hardest to watch. From the immediate start when it opens with a simple black screen as we hear messages from loved ones about to die in the Twin Towers (I’m unsure if they’re real messages or not, but either way they’re still harrowing to listen to), through to uncompromising, realistic torture scenes and to real news footage of victims of further attacks, this is a film that isn’t afraid to show you the true horror and the many lives lost in the hunt for Osama. And it is all the more compelling for that.

Jessica Chastain gives one of her finest performances to date as Maya. Chastain expertly reflects Maya’s determination showing her as an intelligent woman who isn’t afraid to get involved and who will stop at nothing until she has the right answers. The rest of the cast are also superb. Jason Clarke, previously seen with Chastain in Lawless, is excellent as the tattooed, Wu-Tang Clan-loving Dan. He manages to create a likeable character in him, even though most of what we see him do onscreen is horrific. These torture scenes involving this character have also been the root of a lot controversy surrounding the film. But Clarke (and writer Mark Boal) cleverly makes Dan a conflicted man who knows what he needs to do to stop potential threats from occurring – he’s a necessary evil. Likewise, Bigelow and Boal show both sides to the story in these situations (and in later similar scenes involving Maya), leaving the viewer to make their own conclusion about what they think is right or wrong under the circumstances.

Kyle Chandler as grumpy Station Chief Joseph Bradley, Jennifer Ehle as Jessica (another strong-minded officer filled with determination), Mark Strong as a bad-tempered official and Édgar Ramírez as another officer on the ground are all worth a mention for their great performances too, in shorter roles that nonetheless leave a lasting impression. And towards the end of the film, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are also excellent additions as two US Navy SEALs who are part of the group who plan on ending the hunt for Osama.

In fact the last scene involving Edgerton, Pratt and others playing the SEALs is one of the most intense, adrenaline-pumping moments committed to film. Expertly shot and superbly directed it puts you at the heart of the final act as you watch the tense action unfold. The outcome of this, and the conclusion of the entire film, is cleverly left by Bigelow and Boal for you to decide – a very brave move by both of them. To say more than this would be to give too much away though.

Zero Dark Thirty is an incredible achievement of a film and again proves Kathryn Bigelow is a brilliant and bold director who isn’t afraid to ask questions about the government and other serious issues, and who doesn’t shy away from making her audience question them as well. It also again shows Mark Boal is an amazing writer who similarly likes to explore the truth behind events that have consumed and changed people’s lives. Although it is nearly 3 hours long, Zero Dark Thirty is filled with such superb performances, expert writing and direction and so much intense drama that it won’t feel like it. Watch, and make your own decision about what happens at 30 minutes past midnight…

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~ by square-eyed-geek on February 21, 2013.

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