Zero Dark Thirty (M)

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Review byMatthew Turner24/01/2013

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 157 mins

Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated follow-up to The Hurt Locker is a gripping, sharply written and subtly provocative thriller, anchored by a terrific central performance from Jessica Chastain.

What's it all about?
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal (Bigelow's screenwriter on The Hurt Locker), Zero Dark Thirty is an exhaustive account of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the wake of 9/11. Jessica Chastain stars as determined CIA analyst Maya, who's first seen observing her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) torturing a prisoner in Pakistan for information and subsequently leads a team of agents (including Harold Perrineau and Jennifer Ehle) dedicated to tracking down Bin Laden.

Over a period of several years, the team investigate a number of leads and encounter several setbacks before finally uncovering a link to a man who's said to be a courier for Bin Laden; this in turn leads Maya to make a credible guess as to Bin Laden's whereabouts. However, the higher-ups – including the CIA director (James Gandolfini) and the National Security Advisor (Stephen Dillane) - are frustratingly slow to react to her evidence and demand further proof before authorising an attack.

The Good
Jessica Chastain is terrific as Maya, delivering a compelling performance that combines steely determination and a physical vulnerability, yet at the same time keeping her emotions firmly in check; only at the end do we catch a glimpse of her inner life and the toll her decade-long search has taken on her. There's also strong work from a jaw-dropping supporting cast that includes Ehle, Clarke, Gandolfini, Mark Strong (as one of Maya's superiors) and later Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton as members of the Navy Seal team tasked with raiding Bin Laden's compound (there's even a random cameo from a British TV face, if you like that sort of thing).

For the most part, Boal's sharply written script unfolds like an exhaustive procedural and does an excellent job of painstakingly assembling all the information and illustrating the various different methods by which said information was obtained. On top of that, the film is subtly provocative, in that it refuses to address questions of legitimacy over torture and indeed the whole revenge-killing aspect itself; it's telling that no-one ever raises the idea of capturing Bin Laden alive, for example. The result of this is a vaguely uncomfortable feeling as you wait for someone to voice legitimate concerns that are never raised. Instead, you end up searching the performances for hints as to the characters' feelings on the matter.

The Great
In addition, the film is superbly shot and edited and Bigelow builds to a nail-biting final act that seems to unfold in real time. Indeed, despite the film's lengthy running time, it remains gripping throughout, which is quite an achievement considering everyone already knows how the film ends.

Worth seeing?
Zero Dark Thirty is a well made, engaging and gripping thriller with a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance from Jessica Chastain. Recommended.

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Zero Dark Thirty (M)
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Content updated: 18/09/2019 10:04

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