For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret locations across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal to track down and eliminate wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden.
Disregard the firestorm of criticism that’s been unleashed in the US against the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty: this is a powerful, thrilling and compelling chronicle of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
From the chilling opening sequence – a black screen overlaid with the panicked voices of people caught up in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre – to the final frame, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have crafted an enduring masterpiece.
In their second collaboration following the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, the filmmakers never claimed this was a factual documentary. The introductory slide clearly states it’s 'based on first-hand accounts of actual events". In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Bigelow acknowledged, 'Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue... I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore."
Nor should the carping over the degree to which torture was or wasn’t used in the black operations leading to bin Laden’s capture and execution in Pakistan in May 2011 detract in the slightest from fully appreciating Jessica Chastain’s astounding performance.
In the lead role of CIA analyst Maya (inspired by a CIA officer whom former journalist Boal discovered during his meticulous research), Chastain plays the most dynamic, intense and commanding female I’ve seen in years. Chastain proves you don’t need to be a leather-clad superhero, a warrior or a Prada-wearing boss to dominate the screen.
After the prologue, the narrative jumps forward by two years to a CIA black site in Pakistan where Maya watches silently as her wild-eyed colleague Dan (Aussie Jason Clarke in another impressive turn following Lawless) interrogates Al Qaeda operative Ammar (Reda Kateb).
In gruesome scenes that are hard to watch, Ammar is subjected to water-boarding, sexual humiliation and other forms of torture including sleep deprivation and being locked in a box. Maya looks on grimly, Chastain hinting at a mixture of discomfort and faint disdain.
As the film progresses her character becomes stronger, more assertive and manically determined as she’s convinced the way to find bin Laden is to track the people he employs as couriers: a strategy that leads to clashes with the Islamabad station chief Joe Bradley (Kyle Chandler) and her bosses back home in CIA headquarters.
Punctuating the painstaking intelligence work and the black ops are a series of terrorist attacks that are graphically re-enacted, including of a 2004 attack in Saudi Arabia, the 2005 bus and tube bombing in London, the 2008 demolition of the Karachi Marriott and the following year, a suicide bombing in a CIA base in Afghanistan.
Little is revealed about Maya’s personal life beyond the revelation that she has no boyfriend (she implies she doesn’t fool around) and has almost no friends apart from her garrulous CIA colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). But thanks to Chastain’s skill Maya emerges as a satisfyingly realised, completely credible character.
The film resists the temptation to veer into cheap melodrama. When Maya vows after one terrorist attack, 'I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden," it sounds authentic, a statement of grim resolve.
No one can accuse Bigelow and Boal of being didactic or politically biased; President George W. Bush isn’t mentioned and President Obama is seen fleetingly on TV asserting, 'We do not torture". There’s a surprising degree of dark humour, mostly revolving around James Gandolfini’s acerbic CIA director Leon Panetta and Dan’s lighter side.
The climactic 35 minutes is a nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat ride, culminating in an intensely emotional scene. The 157-minutes running time flies by, with just a couple of lulls when folks spout military jargon.
Among the large gallery of characters, Mark Strong stands out as a bombastic, high-level CIA official and Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are serviceable as Navy SEALs who take down their quarry.
Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser favours a hand-held camera and lots of intimate close-ups but the camera movements aren’t annoyingly jerky as in, say, Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films, and the editing isn’t frenetic.
The Middle East-influenced score by Alexandre Desplat is a subtle enhancement of the visceral imagery on screen.
Watch 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Thursday 14 January, 9:40pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini