Zero Dark Thirty – review

Kathryn Bigelow's dramatisation of the hunt for Bin Laden is a riveting thriller to match The Hurt Locker

In the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal approached the "war on terror" through the eyes, ears and unwavering fingers of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a bomb-disposal expert who comes to Iraq in 2004 after service in Afghanistan. He's what the French call a baroudeur, a man addicted to combat, alienated from everyday civilian life, and the film covers 38 tense days before his unit completes its tour of duty.

Bigelow and Boal's second collaboration, Zero Dark Thirty, spans a whole decade, from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and it centres on a CIA operative called Maya (Jessica Chastain). The first film was inspired by Boal's experiences while embedded with the US army in Iraq. The new one is based on extensive research including, apparently, direct access to key personnel in the CIA.

The title of The Hurt Locker was said to refer, via standard military usage of the term "locker" for a storage space, to the place where stoics hide their pain. The equally resonant Zero Dark Thirty is similar tough forces jargon, combining the post-midnight hours before sunrise – "zero dark" – and the precise time – 12.30am – when the navy Seals' stealth helicopters zeroed in on Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. It's a riveting movie in that now familiar semi-documentary style of contemporary action thrillers that every couple of minutes tells us we're in the "US embassy, Islamabad, Pakistan", "CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia", "London, England" or "CIA Black Site, Gdansk, Poland".

Whereas in The Hurt Locker Sergeant James is obsessed with bombs and improvised explosive devices, deadly stand-ins for the remote enemies he confronts, Maya's obsession is with the elusive man behind it all, OBL as they call him. Like the "most wanted" Iraqi criminals whose photos were distributed on playing cards, Bin Laden is identified as the world "public enemy number one", a term created in the 1930s for purposes of self-promotion by the FBI's J Edgar Hoover.

The handsome, red-headed Maya (convincing, determined, mysterious in Chastain's compelling performance) knows no other life but the agency, having been recruited straight from university. We assume her mission as manhunter dates from 9/11, as the film opens with a blank screen and a soundtrack carrying the last words of people trapped on the higher storeys of the World Trade Centre.

In 2003 she's thrown into the interrogation business as a witness to the extraordinary rendition and torture of suspected terrorists. She reluctantly accepts the task as part of the business, as police investigators in contrasted regimes have done for hundreds of years, usually but not always with the open or covert permission of their superiors. Bigelow shows it in graphic detail, though not with anything resembling sadistic glee, and Maya develops some kind of relationship with the handsome, intelligent, bearded interrogator called Dan (Jason Clarke). He has the same "this hurts me more than it hurts you" attitude of the torturers in Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, a film used on orientation courses for US troops in Iraq.

Dan quits, evidently shocked by what he's seen and done (we later see him kempt and shaven among the top CIA men back home). But Maya remains in the field, working assiduously and singlemindedly, gradually losing her faith in the efficacy of torture. Her mission, however, is strengthened when a fellow female operative is lured into an ambush by putting too much trust in dubious sources. Maya is clearly trying to find acceptance and approval in a man's world, and her combination of persistence, intuition, psychological insight and intellectual brilliance is rewarded when she finds vital links that lead her to OBL's Pakistani fastness.

It's fascinating to observe her at work in this alternative existence of chilling, hi-tech surveillance, and perhaps the key exchange comes when she's eventually brought into a top policy meeting at CIA headquarters. She's shown to a seat at the back, but when she intervenes to correct a comment made upon a table-top model of the Abbottabad compound, the surly, foul-mouthed CIA chief (James Gandolfini) asks: "Who are you?" "I'm the motherfucker who discovered the place – sir," she replies. From then on she's one of the guys, accompanying the Seals to Afghanistan on their brilliantly staged mission and finally identifying the corpse in its body bag. But afterwards, she's alone once more. This is a fascinating film, and Chastain's wonderful performance has something in it of the tragic sense of life.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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