Zero Dark Thirty

zero dark thirty 1There are few things that will generate more discussion and debate than a film that makes the American nation look bad. The flag wavers immediately start to mobilse in defense of their ideals and principles. The moderates start to debate the issues and are shouted down while appealing for unity and understanding. All the time the film gains a reputation, a bit of notoriety, and box office taking rise as people want to judge the film for themselves. One of the last films to do this was Zero Dark Thirty from Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow.

The story focuses on the efforts of the US intelligence community in their bid to find where Osama Bin Laden is hiding after the events of 9/11. We follow rookie investigator Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she becomes involved in the investigation two years after the attacks. The efforts by the CIA are generating a lot of intel. Unfortunately this information is not leading them to their target and his subordinates as quickly as they would like. With a slightly different perspective Maya arrives at the US embassy in Pakistan and begins on her quest. One of the first duties she performs is to attend the interrogation of a member of Al Quaeda. The techniques used by the CIA operative in charge (Jason Clarke) range from psychological to the use of number of torture techniques that are all to familiar to the general public. After failing to gain information that would have stopped an attack on civilians in India they take a different route in order to get what they need.

The stark portrayal of the techniques used caused the most controversy. The scenes are shot in a harsh and bleak manner. There is subtle lighting and very little use of background music. In fact most of the time during these harrowing scenes (there is no other way to describe them)it is only diegetic sounds which intensify the scenes in a more effective way than any music.

zero dark thirty 2The film is constructed very well. The screenplay from writer Mark Boal is dense and complicated. It demands your attention from the start. There are very few scenes where we get straight exposition. We are expected to understand part of the background to the events. Nothing is spoon fed to us. Using this device tends to alienate part of the audience. It is not a bad thing though. It concentrates the mind and actually draws you into the story and start to care for the characters. This is just as well as apart from the main characters the rest are not developed in any meaningful way. Several well known faces such as Mark Strong and Kyle Chandler play relatively minor roles. Although both are good in their roles they are not really given enough to work with to make it memorable performances.

The story is as much Maya’s journey as it is the hunt for Osama. At the start she is visibly shaken at the sight of an interrogation. After only a short time she is able to conduct her own interrogations and direct others to carry out violence on the detainees. She changes in that she lets the failures and dead ends affect her personally. She is forcing herself forward at he cost of friendship and her health.

The problem that the film makers have is that you know how it is going to end. When the project was conceived this was not the case. At that time Bin Laden was still at large and the film was going to be open ended. Real events overtook the production and gave the film a natural conclusion. This is a benefit to the film. At points the story can come over as a series of set pieces with Maya moving from one to the other having unearthed another piece of the puzzle.

As with the torture scenes the remainder of the film refrains from swaying the audience one way or another. The facts are laid out and it is up to you to take from it what you want. It is neither a flag waving film or a condemnation of the tactics used. It simply states that to the best of their knowledge, based on their research, what is on the screen actually happened.

Overall a thought provoking and difficult film to watch. Not for everyone but definitely a film that I was glad I watched. Recommended.

John McArthur
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