How soon is ‘too soon’?
Three years after becoming the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director with fascinating character-study The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow returns to the war genre with her dramatisation of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.
Films that are based on true events have a tendency for hyperbole and melodrama; often exhausting dramatic license and finding themselves far from the truth they claim to tell. Contrary to this, Zero Dark Thirty was released to wide critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations with plentiful praise directed towards its credibility. However, many commentators were sceptical towards a filmmaker tackling a subject that remains fresh within public consciousness. As well as its commendation, the film has also suffered a backlash from disgruntled viewers who question the validity of the narrative as well as disagreeing with the controversial themes at its core.
Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the manhunt for Bin Laden, from the September 11th terror attacks that instigated the war against al-Qaeda to the night-raid of the Pakistani compound where he was killed in 2011. Informed by firsthand accounts, Mark Boal’s detailed screenplay remains grounded in reality throughout and rarely strays into theatrics. The filmmakers acknowledge that their audience know the eventual outcome and dedicate the first two thirds of the narrative to dissecting the untold events that occurred over the course of the ten year search.
The opening two thirds are split into various chapters and each documents the multitude of undercover investigations, private interviews and discrete meetings that were required to discover Bin Laden’s location. These slow-paced, informative segments supplement the final, which concludes the film with a suspense-filled crescendo of action and tension. In doing so Bigelow is able to make a story that everyone already knows thoroughly engaging throughout.
The problem for the film is that it remains so closely anchored to truth that it frequently becomes lost among the weight of its own material. The filmmakers ask too much of the audience to comprehend the multitude of information, jargon terminology and characters that lack any depth within a first cat that smothers them in detail. This severe beginning is certainly oppressive, but it also provides a beneficial connection as the audience becomes as overwhelmed as the protagonist.
Jessica Chastain is fiery and confident within her role as the CIA agent Maya, who remains undercover today, who sacrificed her personal life for the task of finding the terrorist leader. The remarkable talent occupies her complex character and provides an emotionally-charged performance brimming with dedication and commitment. As a strong female lead Chastain commands the film, but unfortunately her support cast fail to compare, largely due to the lack of depth to their characters.
In addition to the misdirected criticisms towards its embellishments of facts, the film and its creators have been accused of partisanship with the Obama administration, erroneous access to classified information and even allegations of a pro-torture stance. Though an investigation into the contact between the filmmakers and the CIA is still ongoing, none of these issues arise within the film. Zero Dark Thirty is neither the pro-Obama propaganda that many conservatives expected nor an advocate of torture.
The film shows distressing scenes that showcase torture as techniques that the US initially used to ascertain information from their detainees. The filmmakers don’t display torture to represent positive or negative opinions of it, merely provide exposure within their true tale, allowing audiences to generate their own thoughts.
Zero Dark Thirty flirts with many themes that surround the ethics of war, but never tackles any of them. Bigelow approaches the film in a noncommittal manner without a formal agenda, only to showcase the facts in what seems an attempt to spark a debate which it doesn’t want to indulge in. The trouble is that this is sensitive ground that the filmmakers are embarking on and with the amount of controversy that surrounds it maybe it has arrived a little too soon. On the other hand, Zero Dark Thirty is a compelling piece of cinema with an incredibly central performance and sublime technical expertise.