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Zero Dark Thirty

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Laden With Obsession – ★★★★½

A film that was originally about years of searching for a man suddenly and dramatically became a film about finding a man.

I doubt I was the only one who groaned a little bit when Kathryn Bigelow announced that her f0llow-up to the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker would be about America’s failed attempts to capture Osama Bin Laden. But because he remained at large, the story would have lacked a clear-cut, finite ending. Bigelow was set to start production on screenwriter Mark Boal’s story, focusing on the failed American attempts to kill Bin Laden in the December 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, when out of nowhere one Sunday night in May 2011 it was announced that the Americans had killed him. It was a strangely serendipitous moment for the film-makers and a joyous one for much of the free world as we pretended we were at Wrestlemania III and hollered U.S.A. like there was no tomorrow.

Since then a little perspective has set in, America still has a strong presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the nations’ death toll from the decade-long “war on terror” sitting at around 66,000. Whatever your feelings on war or torture, the U.S. carried itself in a certain way to exact revenge following the 9/11 attacks and ZDT shows things like they were and makes no apology for military and agency policies.

The film’s action starts in 2003 when a young CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) is assigned to the Pakistan bureau to begin tracking Osama Bin Laden as part of a bigger team focused on al-Qaeda operations. Her first act while there is to witness and assist fellow operative Dan with the interrogation of a prisoner. Bigelow’s direction pulls no punches with the questioning as he goes all Jack Bauer with his degrading use of dog collars and water-boarding. Over the next seven years Maya struggles to get to grips with who is who in the al-Qaeda hierarchy and questions whether anyone really has a clue about Bin Laden’s whereabouts (spoiler – they don’t). Then in 2010, some pieces of the puzzle finally start fitting together and a hunch pays off as she identifies Bin Laden’s “courier” (or “postman” as we’d say in Ireland) which leads them to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

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| o | – Yes it seems we’re trusting Andy from Parks and Recreation with killing Osama Bin Laden

The dips in action in the first half of the film (2003-2010) make for a bit of an uneven experience that may work better in a three or four part TV special. Up until the location of the courier in mid 2010, Maya and her team were working off scraps and ending up in corners so there’s not a whole lot of progress being made. Boal’s script keeps your interest levels high as a series of different faces come and go. Thankfully once the Bin Laden compound is located, the film finds another gear and Bigelow is allowed to flex her action movie muscles a little.

Chastain’s performance is the real centre-piece of the film and it’s really the story of her obsession that drives things along. There’s a hint of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison about some of her actions and character traits, but that’s no bad thing. It’s speaks volumes that the defining image of the final raid aren’t the Seal Team Six dudes skulking around, but really the look on Maya’s face as she watches on a monitor. Whether Academy voters opt for this more nuanced work over Jennifer Lawrence’s Silver Linings Playbook performance doesn’t matter to me (the awards were split at the Golden Globes) as both deserve their plaudits. There’s at least a dozen supporting players that could be talked about but none with the impact of the leading lady, though a quick mention for mumblecore-favourite Mark Duplass and star of Carlos Édgar Ramírez who both deserve a nice “huh, what’s he doing in this” when they show up.

It should be noted that ZDT is a remarkably subtle and controlled film, which is surprising considering the huge subject matter. The sense of foreboding tension that lingers throughout is fuelled by the wonderfully understated score from composer Alexandre Desplat, who also did the music for another 2012 film that deals with the CIA in a very different way, Argo. 

After so much anticipation and talk it’s a real relief when something lives up to expectations and while the pacing may be a little off at times, that was simply the nature of the hunt and those years of searching only mean the pay-off at the end is better. It’s a remarkably confident piece of work and features one of the strongest female characters to be seen in a Hollywood film in years, while also being the first great picture of the defining conflict of our time. Big up to Bigelow.

USA  /  Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow  /  Written By: Mark Boal  /  Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini  /  157min  /  Drama, Thriller  /  Release: 25 January 2013 (Ireland, UK), 19 December 2012 (USA, Canada)

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Nigel

Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.
 
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