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Following up on The Hurt Locker's unflinching look at fallout from the American led invasion of Iraq, director Kathryn Bigelow has now turned to where it all began, and in some minds, finished. Following the attacks of 9/11, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden occupied considerable forces of the US government, none more so than single-minded new-kid-on-the intel-block Maya (Jessica Chastain). As time, political will, funding models and physical safety shift ground, so too her capacity to influence those influencing administration heavyweights. Fortunately for them, less so Bin Laden, she was a woman who simply didn't understand when no means no.

Screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) was given considerable assistance to the CIA in developing a story which rings with a sense of informed authenticity. How much is truth and how much is PR we may never know. What we do know is that Bigelow knows action, and more importantly she knows how to withhold. This juxtaposition was played to Oscar winning effect in The Hurt Locker and gives Zero Dark Thirty an incredible sense of power. When you expect things to explode (literally and figuratively), they don't. When you don't, they do. It's unsettling and enticing in equal measure that, given a generous run time, doesn't over play its hand as an equally generous number of characters add their account to the action. Supported by a rock solid cast (Jason Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini and Joel Edgerton among them), Chastain surprises in an uncompromising, central role. Not surprisingly, production is of epic proportions.

In short, Zero Dark Thirty is largely what you'd expect. An exceptional film that like a damn fine police procedural reveals with a measured, steady hand what it takes to bring down the world's most dangerous man. Hopes that it would also deliver a one-two punch to the gut, a hallmark of Bigelow's tremendous output, is largely unrealised. Which is not to say the film is disappointing, its far from that. However it does lack a delicious sense of narrative uncertainty in its A-Z approach and wants for an OMG moment that has come to define her work.

Perhaps that will play out in real life. In going to press, US congress stepped up pressure on the CIA to reveal how much 'sensitive' information it handed over to the filmmakers, and screenwriter Mark Boal in particular. Their failure to acknowledge that Zero Dark Thirty is only dramatisation, that Boal could never fully understand what it was like to have been in the room, that his is second hand information, we can only assume this pressure is a horse-bolted attempt to hide 'embarrassing revelations' that the CIA tortured people. It's hardly news.

However it does underline Boal and Bigelow's reluctance to draw Zero Dark Thirty into a larger discussion about why America, and the West by extension, is under attack in the first place. Here Bin Laden is neither monster nor mis-understood saint, simply a mass murderer wanted by the US government. That is this story, yet extending such a line of thought could be that missing one-two of a greater, untold story.

Nonetheless, Zero Dark Thirty is a scintillating account of one of the past decade's most astonishing, life changing events. From the chilling opener of conversations between terrified people in the World Trade Centre to Chastain's emotional revelation, Bigelow holds you by hand and guides you by the throat. It's a significant film, unforgettable stuff.


Previewed at Dendy Cinemas, Newtown, Sydney on Wednesday 12 December 2012
moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks

It is difficult to comprehend why Kathryn Bigelow is not a contender for the Best Director at this year’s Academy Awards. Perhaps it is the subject matter for Zero Dark Thirty that kept the nomination at bay, although it is up for five other nominations including Best Actress for Jessica Chastain, who has already been awarded the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, and deservedly so.

The title of this film is US military jargon meaning ‘for the dead of night – 12.30,’ being the moment in May 2011 when US Navy SEALS raided the compound where Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan and, well, the rest is history… history, the filmmakers tell us, as it was recorded in official documents and in interviews with many of those involved in the action seen on screen. Authenticity is what they were aiming for and it works. This is a faithful, almost documentary-like, reconstruction of events spanning a decade - the hunt for one of the world’s most ruthless terrorists by a dedicated team of CIA operatives who never gave up on the idea of getting their man. The team is represented by a young woman whose job it was to target terrorists, their money men and the couriers who provide the links between them. Maya (Chastain – The Help / Lawless) was recruited straight from university and this is all she has ever done in the workforce. Up against a mostly male barrier, she sets out to make herself the forerunner in the hunt and she’s prepared to go to any lengths to get the information she needs.

The torture scenes are disturbing viewing as they clearly show how the usual rules of warfare no longer applied. Despite a TV grab of President Obama addressing the nation declaring that he intended to make the use of torture illegal, the on-screen visuals show us how hollow those words were. A very difficult scene depicting the torture of a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb – A Prophet), shows how terrifying it is to be at the mercy of a ruthless interrogator who won’t give up until he succeeds in getting what he wants. But we also see, in addition to torture, how more traditional spycraft such as electronic surveillance and bribery (which in one scene is particularly gob-smacking) were also required for the CIA to accomplish its mission.

The final scenes are brilliant as stealth Black Hawk helicopters circle bin Laden’s compound, although Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser was overlooked for an Oscar nomination, and Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the tension. The art directors and set decorators had an interesting time setting up the locations and reconstructing bin Laden’s Abbottabad house in a school in Chandigarh, Northern India. The reconstruction is apparently exactly the same as the original house, according to the research notes. Scriptwriter Mark Boal (he won an Oscar for his screenplay of The Hurt Locker) comes from a journalistic background and spent a long time interviewing people to get to the truth behind ZDT. And, if this is indeed the truth, then it makes for one of the best films you will see this year, bearing out that old adage that truth is definitely stranger than fiction.


Previewed at Dendy Cinemas, Newtown, Sydney on Thursday 17 January 2013
moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks

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Zero Dark Thirty (2012) on IMDb

Jessica Chastain
James Strong
James Gandolfini
Joel Edgerton

Kathryn Bigelow

Mark Boal


MA / 157 minutes

January 31, 2013
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