A project shrouded in secrecy for many years, Zero Dark Thirty came blinking into the light and right into uproarious award season acclaim. A welcome alternative to the usual fist-bumping Hollywood military yarn, director Catherine Bigelow has taken an unconventional tact in telling the decade-long story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Though at over two and a half hours with most traces of politics, emotion and humanity pushed out in favour of cold, exacting procedural detail, the film is easier to respectfully endure than enjoy.
As the first woman to win Best Director at the Oscars with Hurt Locker, Bigelow is perfectly positioned to finally put to rest that stupid Hollywood fallacy that a female taking lead, either behind or on front of the camera, is cinematic poison. Not only does she tackle this absurdly ambitious storytelling challenge with signature austere professionalism, but also provides us with an elegant onscreen allegory of her own success in a male-dominated industry by way of the film’s protagonist, Maya.
Played by Jessica Chastain, Maya is the thread that binds together the film’s Middle East-trotting, time-jumping plot. After a brief reminder of the 9/11 terror attacks (mercifully recounted as audio only, sparing us the well-worn visuals) the film kicks off with Maya, fresh from Washington, witnessing the military torture of an Al Qaeda moneyman. As her burly colleague, Dan, goes about his horrendous work with a chipper sort of business-like attitude Maya’s slight form and nervous features look positively fragile in comparison. But as we will learn – in painstaking detail – this first impression could not be further from the truth.
Adjusting to the day-to-day brutalities of US intelligence work in the Middle East, Maya quickly establishes herself as a driven, fiercely intelligent survivor. As her CIA compatriots are gradually whittled down, either in suicide bombings or trips back to Washington from exhaustion, Maya never once strays from the course, believing with an almost-fanatical fervour that she’s unearthed the lead that will lead her to bin Laden. It takes years of enduring disappointments, deaths, bureaucratic obstinance, and technical limitations but in the end, as we all know, Maya’s hunch pays off.
The fiery operative is allegedly inspired by a real life analyst who screenwriter Mark Boal uncovered in his considerable research into the subject. Boal, who also penned Hurt Locker, attacks the tricky subject with journalistic economy, he’s clearly here to tell this story in the most unadorned way possible. Which is a tricky proposition, the film’s pared back style certainly lends itself to a kind of dramatic documentary feeling, but it would be wrong to walk away thinking of this as any kind of neutral, objective recounting of the facts – no matter how cold and unfeeling the script tries to be.
As a peek into the complex modern day intelligence machine the film is a revelation. Taking a hard line on avoiding any of the run-and-gun macho clichés that so thoroughly permeate any American depiction of the country’s defence forces, Zero Dark Thirty feels like an accurate portrait of intelligence culture – and all the pen pushing, data mining and pissy office politicking that entails. Definitely not one for the adrenaline junkies or those looking for the sustained trip-wire suspense of Hurt Locker. This film plays the long game, albeit with the payoff of a 30-minute vérité-style re-enactment of the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad complex.
Maya’s story is the crux of the film, the tale of a determined woman playing in a traditionally male sandbox whose dogged persistence ends up facilitating one of America’s biggest military successes since the whole messy War on Terror business kicked off. It’s a fascinating tale – the details of which will still be unknown to much of the public, despite the story’s high profile – told in a meticulously sterile way. On those terms it’s an unqualified success, however in order to get there the film has jettisoned a good many elements that some viewers will have considered essential.
For one, there are no real characters to speak of in the film, just job descriptions stapled to actors. Though she’s a constant presence throughout the film we never really learn anything about Maya, beyond that she really, really wants to find bin Laden. Motivation, backstory, personal life and almost all elements of characterisation are sacrificed in order to give the impression of cold neutrality. A noble enough aim, considering the loaded material, but one that narrative filmmaking can only really sell as a convincing lie.
The huge array of supporting cast members largely exist as a means to transmit information, fleshing out the basic data of the operation, but with no room to become characters of their own. Many of the supporting cast struggle valiantly with imbuing some kind of likeability into their fleeting moments but they’re working with a script that wishes it were an investigative journalism piece. Any attempt at levity, compassion or empathy tends to come off like it was written by a robot doing it’s best to emulate a human. Better to stick to the dense, sterile military speak.
By the time we finally reach the on-the-ground action for the film’s climax it all starts to feel a little perfunctory. Maya is our only real investment in the story and she gets left behind and we all know the outcome of the op, so being asked to sit through the over-long dénouement feels more taxing than cathartic. Which is not to say the scene, like every other in the film, is not expertly crafted – it’s raw, visceral military storytelling easily the equal of anything similar in recent years.
Apparently the Zero Dark Thirty project was underway before the US finally caught up with bin Laden. It’s hard not to wonder if an ending in which our hero’s relentless struggle does not find its tidy resolution might not have been a more existentially potent conclusion.
There’s no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty will be roundly celebrated by American, and rightly so. It boldly eschews the hackneyed Hollywood tropes of the genre, daring to tell a tale of American military success without resorting to the usual testosterone-driven chest-pounding circle jerk. International audiences may not see it in quite the same light as – no matter how hard the production pushes for documentary realism – this is still a very American narrative, driven by an ingrained sense of moral superiority.
It’s hard to fault the film on a technical level. The directing is forceful and assured, the screenplay bleeds attention to detail, Chastain knocks out a surprising career best in the lead and the whole thing coalesces into something that feels daring and unique. But it’s also a hard one to truly enjoy, with many of the audience’s easy handholds denied by design. Zero Dark Thirty deserves the accolades that are surely heading its way – but it will definitely be a while before I’m up for a second viewing.
Zero Dark Thirty is in cinemas January 31, 2013.