Kathryn Bigelow’s typically hard-nosed account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden was a political hot potato back in 2013, with questions raised about the accuracy of early scenes depicting enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation. I purposefully avoided the film at the time, though of course three or four years later my own politics are always going to affect the way in which I interpret a work like Zero Dark Thirty and the extent to which I can appreciate it as film, and thus as a piece of art.
It is certainly a gripping and exhaustive account of the hunt, with all its attendant pressures experienced by those working for the US establishment at different levels: Jessica Chastain heads up the cast as the fictional CIA analyst at the forefront of the search, but the narrative occasionally veers away from her to examine the stress suffered by Kyle Chandler’s station chief as his superiors demand more, or indeed the decisive role played by the squadron of Navy SEALs – a couple of whom are played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt – who attacked bin Laden’s compound in the dead of night.
Like The Hurt Locker (and several others) before it, Bigelow shows that she is a master at ratcheting up the tension during set pieces, and she is surely one of the strongest voices in action cinema today (though admittedly her films now bear little relation to the hundreds of others one might describe as being in the ‘action’ genre). Given the director, then, it’s no surprise that it’s very tense at times, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as even-handed as it is: there is celebration when bin Laden is neutralised, of course, but the final scene speaks of Chastain’s character’s emptiness and hints at the overall fruitlessness of the search; there is relief but there is a clear understanding that this death is not a full-stop with regard to ever-deteriorating US-Middle East relations, either. She is excellent, and I thought Jason Clarke was frighteningly convincing as a CIA torturer and analyst, too. (****½)