Film review: Zero Dark Thirty - No easy answers on the road to Bin Laden

4.00

(15)

I'm glad that it was Kathryn Bigelow in charge of Zero Dark Thirty, an account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It's not because she's a brilliant action director, though she is. And it's not because The Hurt Locker (2008), her previous movie, is one of the best pictures from the so-called War on Terror, though it is. I'm glad principally because she brings something to a difficult, incendiary story that another director – a male director – would not, perhaps could not, have done.

A Ridley Scott or a Michael Mann would probably have made a hard-hitting, professional job of the material. But I think Bigelow invests her hard-hitting professional job with something else, a thoughtful ambiguity that just doesn't allow for simple responses. With her screenwriter, Mark Boal, she conveys the nature of counterterrorism as a long game, complicated, sometimes brutal, often exasperating, and she does it without sensationalism.

People will go to Zero Dark Thirty wanting different things. Some might expect a triumphant yahoo for American know-how and resolve. Others might look for an indictment of torture as a means of intelligence gathering. It offers neither of these. Boldly, it has no action hero. It has a protagonist, but not one who's armed or field-experienced. This would be a CIA analyst named Maya, a willowy, pale-skinned redhead whom men would naturally underestimate. "Washington says she's a killer," someone remarks, but she's not that kind of killer. When she first visits a CIA "black site" in Pakistan to watch a pro named Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a detainee by waterboarding, Maya observes with her arms folded tight across her chest, and her gaze flinches from it just like anyone else's would.

She proves to be steely, though, and one suspects that Bigelow, herself a woman in a man's world, knew exactly how she wanted Jessica Chastain to carry the part. Some have compared Chastain's role to that of Claire Danes as Carrie in the TV drama Homeland – both driven and obsessed by the job, and both allegedly based on actual CIA operatives. Maya is no bipolar loose cannon, however. The film hasn't furnished her with a backstory: the work is all she has, the hard grind of desk-bashing, checking the data, following the leads, arguing the case, making a nuisance of herself to the bosses. One imagines she wouldn't make great company – and that it wouldn't matter a jot to her. Bigelow and Boal aren't interested in explaining this woman; they just want us to feel how it might be to live in her skin.

This also means creating an impression of time, of years slowly circling the plughole. Opening on a dark screen to the babble of 9/11 (you'll hear a heartbreaking phonecall between an operator and a woman trapped in the burning tower), the film shuttles between real-life atrocities and the backroom legwork of analysts, spooks, security professionals – and interrogators. At one point we get a glimpse of Obama on television saying, "America doesn't torture", which creates its own frisson of moral vertigo. The waterboarding, the beatings, the dog collars, all the stuff you've heard about is here, and perhaps some you haven't – the spectacle of a man being forced inside a small wooden box is as harrowing as any. Is this an abhorrent crime? Would the information be impossible to gain by other means? The film isn't saying either way; it is asking us to make up our own minds.

Agonies are inflicted on both sides. Maya loses colleagues in the field, and her own life comes under threat. But something more than professionalism is now spurring her on: "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job." Who does she think she is – Joan of Arc? Well, maybe it is destiny calling her on, but she's too close-mouthed to say any more. As the hunt continues, most of her frustration is directed at her cautious superiors, but we get a compelling sense of her inching closer and closer to her quarry. Consultation reaches the upper echelons of the CIA, and there's a telling scene when the big chief himself (nicely underplayed by James Gandolfini) canvasses his experts on the identity of the mystery man in the Abbottabad compound. Is it "him"? None of the men will stick his neck out. "Sixty per cent certain," says one. "Eighty per cent," says another. At the end of the table Maya says, definitively, "One hundred per cent" – because she's a true believer, and she's done the work.

Having led the charge towards Bin Laden, of course, Maya must be a bystander once the raid is mounted. After so much procedural this climactic passage ups the pace violently, though in an odd way it unfolds with less tension than one might expect. Aside from an accident (non-fatal) with a helicopter, the two teams of Navy SEALs invade the fortress compound and take out their target with such methodical efficiency that it seems to pass in a blur. Bigelow partly films it in a greenish tint, replicating the effect of men stalking through the dark in night-vision goggles. Doors are blown, shots are fired, children cower in bedrooms. Again, humanity is balanced against ruthlessness: a woman who throws herself across her husband's body is herself shot dead, but Bigelow also shows the faces of those whimpering, terrified children. Hardly a concession amid the bloodletting, but at least she bothered to put them there.

It's not unreasonable to assume that a man would have directed these sequences in a more gung-ho fashion. That goes for the whole film. Bigelow's ambivalent touch is powerfully in play right at the end as Maya presides over the mission's success: no hugs or whoops for her. She's identified Bin Laden's corpse and, as it were, signed off on the project.

We last see her sitting alone in an army plane, looking exhausted and lost. Her last 10 years have led up to this night, and her gaze seems to contemplate an awful vacancy. The pilot informs her that she's the only passenger – where's she going to? It's another question that haunts this troubling and fiercely well-made film.

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?