Saturday, 9 February 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Rating: 15
Duration: 157 mins

Sometimes controversy whirls around a film either working to its advantage or detriment. Admittedly anything that generates such attention is largely media hyperbole, and Kathryn Bigelow's latest is perhaps the perfect example of this. 

Zero Dark Thirty -- a film that documents the CIA's battle to hunt down and kill bin Laden -- is a controversial subject matter in itself, but the alleged advocacy of torture seems to be its main talking point. Firstly, the torture scenes aren't especially indulgent, nor does it glorify the process of terrorist interrogation. Secondly, it's not even like the film uses torture for the basis of the narrative, in fact, it features very little in the almost three hour running time. And thirdly, rather than scrutinising this, at times graphic, minute plot element, it's important not to brush the rest of the film aside, because Zero Dark Thirty is a superbly directed, paced and structured thriller.

Understandably Oscar buzz surrounds this, with high profile nominations for Best Picture, Actress and Original Screenplay, yet surprisingly an omission for its directing. Despite the lengthy run time, the pacing and overall balance of action, dialogue and plot are structured fluidly, resulting in a non-stifled flow of true life events translated very effectively onto the big screen. In fact, the story is so well constructed that it could pass as fiction with the narrative progression and gripping tension it builds during set pieces.

What's refreshing is the complete lack of an 'America, fuck yeah!' attitude, even during the moments one might expect (specifically in the enthralling climax), as the story concentrates on its ultimate goal: kill bin Laden. However, patriotism is still visible on the surface of the actions, but the extent and fundamentality of it -- find the bad guys so we can kill them all -- is well disguised in an intelligently written screenplay.

Jessica Chastain is on top form as the overworked, undersexed CIA operative Maya, as her obsession to locate bin Laden defines her characteristics both positively through her determination and perseverance, and negatively via the encumbering nature her obsession has on her health and psychological state. Her role is certainly worthy of an Oscar nod, and may very well emerge the victor come February the 24th.

Another point previously touched upon is Bigelow's spot on direction, further adding to the bafflement of an Oscar snub. She conveys the enormity of the story effectively, treating her audience with the intelligence they deserve and refuses to spoon feed every piece of information to them. Instead, we are encouraged to fill in gaps and piece together details as Maya accumulates them, whilst still offering a concise and accessible story to follow.

From the very beginning Zero Dark Thirty engages in the form of non-fictional drama, builds tension gradually, and strides towards a finale that can only be described as majestic and is comparable to any work of fiction available today. The tension arguably supersedes the hugely praised Argo, and maintains that knife-edged intensity for much longer periods, too.