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USA 2012
Directed by
Kathryn Bigelow
157 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Zero Dark Thirty

Synopsis: The hunt for Osama bin Laden who was assassinated by an American special forces unit in Pakistan on 2 May 2011 after a ten year search.

It is interesting that there are three history films up for Best Picture Oscars this year. “History”, of course, in this context means recorded fact mixed with greater or less degrees of conjecture and embellishment and served up in accordance with cinematic cinventions. There is no formula for what ratio of fact to fiction makes for a better film but Argo is compromised by obviously playing fast and loose with the facts whilst Lincoln impresses by its verisimilitude.

Zero Dark Thirty, which announces that it is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events”, is in a slightly different position to either of the other films as many of the recorded facts remain under CIA embargo. Indeed the main character, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is a fictional construction, it not even being known for sure that the person responsible for actually discovering bin Laden’s hide-out was a woman. Nothwithstanding, Bigelow's film, which takes the US government's official account of the hunt for and killing of bin Laden and gives it extra depth by aforesaid “first-hand accounts”, evidences a commitment to veracity which is vital to its success.

Much of what we see is familiar from the now many films that have dealt with the American presence in the Middle East, from the sand-infested frontlines to the CIA operatives at mission control straining to beat a ticking clock. What is different is the presence of a woman as the main character.  Here, director Bigelow perhaps makes Maya too strong a protagonist, indulging in conventional heroicization. There is one scene, for instance, in which she absolutely shreds her boss (Kyle Chandler) that feels too staged but, what the heck, Bigelow paid her dues with The Hurt Locker so why shouldn’t she show us a woman dominating in a traditionally male domain? Most importantly Chastain makes it work as she does the character's entire journey from rookie to heroine.

As with her 2008 Oscar winner Bigelow’s direction is rigorous. Although visually much of the film is covering familiar territory on many levels it always holds our attention whilst the action sequences are intense yet at the same time restrained.  

Whilst with Lincoln Spielberg had the benefit of having complete control over his fictional world, Bigelow had in many ways a more difficult task in being constrained by real world considerations. Dramatically the former is the stronger film but Zero Dark Thirty seamlessly balances its account of actual events with a character-driven narrative. Detailed and demanding it is not a crowd-pleaser but it is first class film-making.




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