Almost immediately after the idea for a film on such a poignant moment in international affairs was born, Zero Dark Thirty has gained all sorts of publicity. This will undoubtedly lead to successful takings at box offices, regardless of whether you agree or not with the existentialist argument of the film. The ending is no secret to anyone, yet it is the time before Bin Laden’s capture which has been the most captivating unknown until now, a story which has been shrouded with interest like few other news stories ever have.
The most outstanding attribute of Katherine Bigelow’s direction is an impeccable attention to location and detail. We’re taken through streets and markets across Pakistan, in military bases and through the undulating valleys of the country. The chase towards Bin Laden’s compound inches ever closer scene by scene throughout this two and a half hour epic, and at the same time, the sense of anticipation and attention of the audience.
The relentless determination of the film’s main, enigmatic character, morphs into Bigelow’s pet study, a means of obsession and, for the audience, bewilderment. The film’s main preoccupation more than Bin Laden is a character exploration of CIA officer, Maya, whose unique and unenviable reason for existence since leaving high school has been a twelve-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays Maya with little emotion and enigma, yet an infectious frustration and determination to get to the bottom of this more than decade long itch. Against several dealings with death during at least two scenes of the film, she remains unflappable, consistently impervious to complacency and scepticism from others.
In some ways, the scenes which show torture, or extreme interrogation, depending on how stand on such a debate, are a means to an end. Bigelow talked of a “whitewashing history” if these scenes were absent. They can be seen as a thought-provoking consideration or re-think of how societies and governments consider the morality and efficacy of such practises. The depiction of torture is short, yet deeply painful and shocking to watch. What comes from at least the result of physical harm and sleep deprivation is information gained which then brings the manhunt a step further, virtually writing most of the remaining film’s communication of torture with ambivalence and ambiguity.
In addition to giving us a previously unknown insight based on first-hand accounts, as we are reminded at the beginning of the film, Zero Dark Thirty utilises news footage and constant changes of location to depict the continual assembly of this jigsaw, from the CIA headquarters to various locations across the world in a near-documentary style. This is evidence of the dedicated research undertaken for the film, which includes information obtained from sources at the CIA; the visual authenticity of scenes is simply astounding for even the most unappreciative film-goer. The first scene is, instead, a black screen. We hear audio from the streets of Manhattan on 11th September 2011, in addition to news footage from the 2005 London bombings. Each is a reminder of the existence of terrorism in the Western psyche but from this the growing momentum and obsession with catching the world’s most wanted man.
The final sequence coincides with the approach to Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and when the tension and sense of anticipation of the inevitable reaches its peak. Through the verdant glow of night-vision goggles, the way in which this part of the film is shot produces a tangible grabbing of the audience’s attention; Bin Laden’s death is played out in sequences indiscreetly reminiscent of action films. The suspense is undiminishing and the confusion of the scene on the night of 2nd May 2011 becomes infectious to everyone in the room.
One of the most exceptional world news events of this decade becomes a simplified man-hunt without tackling the intricacies of al-Qaeda or the debate on torture. This is not the film’s job, it doesn’t profess to be, nor is it cinema’s job to open such a debate. Zero Dark Thirty is rather, a serious, explosive and frankly unmissable film of action, intrigue but few surprises as to how it culminates. It ends with a glint of emotion from Maya, who leaves Pakistan now overwhelmed with emotion, which in this film is relatively and exceptionally unexpected.