Zero Dark Thirty

For an espionage thriller, Zero Dark Thirty is engaging and fast paced, with nail biting suspense and some fine acting chops. The ending, however, suffers from too many open-ended questions.

Over and above the retrospective narration on ‘the greatest manhunt in history’, Zero Dark Thirty is either a finely crafted espionage drama, or a controversial piece of political propaganda, or a little bit of both. As a cinematic experience, the entertainment quotation varies depending on what you might have grown to expect from this film. And depending on that expectation, this film will either appeal to you, or turn you away in indifference.

The title is military jargon for ‘half past midnight’. It also refers to the time stamped go-order issued by the Pentagon, to raid a compound in Pakistan said to be housing Al-Qaeda terrorist and chief Osama bin Laden. As of 2nd May 2011, we are told that bin Laden was Allegedly eliminated by the US Navy SEALS. This film is all about the “deductive reasoning” as one CIA official puts it, in tracking down bin Laden before he was shot to death. The film opens with a blacked out screen stating that it is based on “first hand” accounts of actual events. In total darkness, we listen for two minutes where American citizens cry out in horror and chaos as the World Trade Centre succumbs to terrorist attacks on 11th September, 2001. Two years later, the CIA has detained Ammar, a suspect linked to Al-Qaeda terrorists in Saudi Arabia. Held at a CIA black site (a location disavowed by the US government) in Pakistan, Ammar is interrogated, tortured and humiliated until he gives CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) a name – a person said to be bin Laden’s courier and confidant. Working with probability on one hand and informed guesses on the other, Maya must now convince the male dominated corridors of power that the courier will lead them to bin Laden.

At the time of reviewing this film, Zero Dark Thirty has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture of the Year. I concur that this is an important film and perfectly timed as such. Over 3000 people lost their lives on the ill-fated and historically infamous 9/11 2001. Add to that hundreds of thousands more on the so called “war on terror” and over a trillion US dollars in defence spending. But what has all this amounted to cinematically? Sure, various other films have tried to throw light on what America has done to avenge the loss of innocent lives since 9/11, but what makes this film so special? Try Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal – the production team that got 2008’s similarly themed The Hurt Locker six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Bigelow returns as director, co-producing with returning screen writer Boal. It is fairly evident that Bigelow and Boal have pulled out all the stops in delivering a top-notch film. That said, I am still not convinced that this is the best film of 2012. My problem lies in the murky prologue and an indistinct epilogue. It is almost as if the director and the writer expected the whole world to be tuned in since 9/11. This downplays the narrative in as much as saying “Meanwhile, in a CIA black site in Pakistan…” The ending is even more annoying. Bin Laden gets his duly deserved double-tap (standard engagement procedure, none less), then what? Is the world safe from terrorism? Do the surviving dependants of thousands of slain victims find closure? Does Maya become a hero? Will the CIA recruit more women? Sadly, none of these questions are answered, and by not answering these questions, where lies the point of this film, less its making?

Then there exists the controversy that becomes a thin line between fact and fiction. By claiming to have the film based on reliable sources, we are given to believe that the US government endorses torture as an enhanced interrogation technique. This part of the narrative could be over hyped if associated as the political propaganda that aided President Obama’s re-election. But given that Bigelow made The Hurt Locker without propaganda, I am content in accepting this film as an espionage drama rather than a trigger-happy depiction vindicating the US government’s trillion dollar deficit.

Zero Dark Thirty also manages a cut above the rest if perceived for its other cinematic qualities – engaging and fast paced narrative, nail biting suspense that leads to startling moments of terror, and some fine acting chops. Jessica Chastain delivers a tour de force achievement transforming Maya into a fiery CIA officer with conviction. There is one particular scene that reminds me of a younger Meryl Streep. Ironically, bin Laden is said to have loathed women in office. By the looks of it, Chastain and Bigelow may have just sent bin Laden a whirling undercurrent to upset his watery grave. Also worth mentioning are a plethora of supporting roles. Most notable are Jason Clarke as Maya’s colleague and interrogation officer, Mark Strong in a fierce pep-talk speech, and some amusing sarcasm from James Gandolfini as former CIA director Leon Panetta. The actual raid is left for the last but best thirty minutes of the film. This is also when I was pleasantly surprised with the use of some military hardware, the likes of which have remained a top secret like the elusive ‘Area 51’. At least till now.

Rating: ★★★½☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.