Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty
For anyone that thought Zero Dark Thirty was set to be a poor man’s The Hurt Locker, prepare to be pleasantly blown away. Apart from the fact that they both deal in modern warfare, they both deal with separate conflicts as well as concentrate on entirely different themes and motives. Parallels could certainly be made between The Hurt Locker’s Sergeant James and Zero Dark Thirty’s ‘Maya’, but largely these films should not be placed side by side for analysis and comparison. It would be fruitless, and unfair to both films as individual entities.
That being said, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have returned from their massive Oscar success with an astonishingly gripping epic that begins on September 11th, 2001, and ends on May 2nd, 2011. The pace of this particular journey is breakneck. Characters come and go; some linger, some get fired, some resign, and some die. Through it all is a solitary unstoppable force in Jessica Chastain’s Maya. A young CIA operative, she experiences her first day in the field within the confines of a detainee facility where she witnesses first hand the earliest form of what it is going to take to ensure she achieves her goal. Within minutes, she is battle hardened, and within years, indestructible.
Losing sight of sleep, food, friends, even respect for the chain of command, Mark Boal has crafted Maya to be one of the most driven characters ever brought to the screen. Her character is written impeccably, but could just as easily have been performed by talent unworthy of the script. Jessica Chastain is not just up to the task, she exceeds any expectation that could’ve been had of this performance. Her work in Zero Dark Thirty is exemplary, to put it finely. The passion for the character’s cause that she is artistically striving to convey is revelatory, and could be used as a benchmark for generations to come. At awards dinners years from now, young actresses will approach her giddily and say, ‘Watching you in Zero Dark Thirty is what inspired me to act’. It is a performance of deep maturity and pure class, and one that deserves every accolade thrown at it.
While Chastain does perfectly well carrying the film for all of its two hours and thirty-seven minutes, there are plenty of other notable contributors to making this film one of the year’s best. Maya may be the driving force of Boal’s story (which is largely based on actual events; in fact, the ending was rewritten to coincide with the actual storming of Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad), but there are a wealth of supporting characters to strengthen the fact that the objectives achieved were a collaborative effort, as is the film’s success. Kyle Chandler (Super 8, Friday Night Lights) is at his broody best as CIA station chief Joseph Bradley, but is unfortunately somewhat shortlived as his character’s interactions with Maya provide the finest dramatic moments in the film.
Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech, The Ides of March) is equally impressive (if shortlived) in the first half as Maya’s female antithesi, Jessica. Between the wine and the gung-ho, she exposes herself where Maya would lock herself away, and proves that being joyless and endless committed is certainly what it takes to get the job done without a scratch or a scar.
Mark Strong (Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, Kick Ass) comes on…well…strong in the second half of the film, providing support in the hierarchy on which Maya can rely on (for the most part), but it’s the pair of Australians who do a fine job taking care of the necessaries where Maya’s job will not allow her to go. Having teamed up with Chastain previously in this year’s Lawless, Clarke is quietly outstanding as Dan, Maya’s closest thing to a friend. He was there on her first day in the field and there with the head of the CIA when she refers to herself as a ‘motherf*cker’. Always a phone call away, his character is as dependable as the dramatic talent behind him.
Though only a feature in the film’s latter third, Joel Edgerton (Warrior) is a further nail in Sam Worthington’s coffin as the Navy SEAL squadron leader that is responsible for leading the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. Where the final half an hour of the film takes place almost entirely in real time, Edgerton provides the hearty edge the film needs in Chastain’s absence where previous to stepping foot in a helicopter needed only one line of dialogue to bond himself to Maya and her solid beliefs in achieving the (apparently) only 60% achievable. Killing Bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty, on a filmmaking front, picks up where The Hurt Locker left off as far as Bigelow and Boal are concerned. The difference being, where The Hurt Locker was a 131-minute thrill ride, this is a 157-minute epic of intense proportions; one that spans ten years and the best part of a career. It is as thoroughly real and as technically spectacular as any film that has been made about modern warfare or Middle Eastern conflicts, and will no doubt eventually earn a place in the National Archives in Washington DC for its overall power and dramatic sensibilities.
Zero Dark Thirty is released in the UK through Universal Pictures and Annapurna Pictures on January 25th.