Tom Leece delves into Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow's controversial account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden
Zero Dark Thirty opens in darkness, as real-life recordings of the voices of those trapped in the World Trade Centre and the four planes hijacked that day. In the moments before the film’s dramatisation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden begins, these final confessions and cries transform the auditorium into an echo chamber of sorrow, stripping back the years and, perhaps, filling us with the same cold and righteous fury that drives the CIA torturers to whom we are subsequently introduced. At a ‘black site’ in Pakistan a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), is menaced by operative Dan (Jason Clarke). “Lie to me and I hurt you,” repeats Dan, to the quiet discomfort of the woman watching at his side.
These early sequences of waterboarding, dog collars and heavy metal drag on but the point is eventually made. By the time Maya (Jessica Chastain) coaxes Ammar into yielding the fragment of information that starts her on the long path to bin Laden’s Abbottabad safe house, she is no longer an innocent. Much has been made of who Chastain’s character is supposed to be – apparently there was a dedicated and glamorous CIA analyst integral to the hunt for bin Laden. With a blank past and empty private life she serves as a microcosmic America; marked by the events of 9/11 and driven by a sense of destiny to be an avenging angel, forced by the terrorist to take up arms and descend to his level.
The complexity of Chastain’s performance unfurls as Zero Dark Thirty maps a decade of conflict. Fired in the crucibles of 7/7, the Islamabad Marriot Hotel bombing and the devastating attack on the CIA’s Afghanistan outpost in 2009, her character moves among defence officials, politicians and fellow operatives, played by a roster of well-known actors from James Gandolfini to, briefly, John Barrowman. But the luminaries on the screen can’t quite disguise the film’s functional quickstep to that crucial dawn raid. Other than the early torture sequences there is only narrative, unspooled through lean, utilitarian scenes. When the time to tell the story of 2nd May 2011 finally arrives, director Kathryn Bigelow abandons Chastain and indulges herself with a forty minute, blow-by-blow re-enactment of the assassination.
It is tense and engaging and, for those who are interested, provides a sense of what it may have been like to be on the mission to neutralise Osama bin Laden. But along with last year’s Argo, which augmented reality in its telling of a true story, Zero Dark Thirty suggests something about what the future of cinema may hold. Events of historical importance are selected by gifted directors, adapted into a narrative, spruced up with artistic license and explored via a talented cast. Bigelow’s film is ultimately an impressive and sometimes manipulative portrayal of a piece of history. Beyond a jumble of socio-political commentary, there lies an implicit recognition that there is no answer, in fact or fiction, to the despairing voices calling out at the film’s beginning.
Zero Dark Thirty is out now on general UK release