Zero Dark Thirty

Bleak and alienating, Zero Dark Thirty is difficult to enjoy but worth seeing, writes ALEX KEMP.

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If any film released this year has as predictable an ending as Zero Dark Thirty’s, I’ll eat my shoe. Billed as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man” (Osama Bin Laden), Kathryn Bigelow’s film hardly has scope to surprise. So it’s a testament to its quality that the majority of the film is also completely engaging.

In fact, the final half hour is pretty much the highlight. The tension is ratcheted up so viscerally and so quickly in anticipation of the climax, that the rest of the film seems laborious and plodding by comparison. Bigelow hasn’t quite remedied the problems evident in The Hurt Locker, which felt frustratingly and arduously episodic. Zero Dark Thirty does use the inevitability of its trajectory to its advantage, giving it a greater sense of momentum than its predecessor. However, too much of the first two hours feels like one explosive event after another, rather than a smooth or satisfying narrative. This is probably inevitable for a film which attempts to take in the crucial events of an entire decade’s worth of terrorist-hunting. But, as with most of 2013’s Best Picture nominees, the film would have been vastly improved if it were leaner and more streamlined.

Thankfully, however, the ‘one-bomb-after-another’ element of the first two hours is propped up admirably by an intriguing central performance from Jessica Chastain. As Maya, a novice CIA officer whose brief career has been entirely spent hunting for You-Know-Who, Chastain’s pale and slight appearance makes her emergence as a military ‘force to be reckoned with’ all the more interesting. While we watch her innocent reticence fall away as the manhunt draws on, Maya becomes completely engulfed in tracking down the enemy. Her life outside of work is only visible in the minutest of glimpses: the one scene in which the topic of Maya’s personal life is raised is interrupted in rather an explosive manner.

Given the impenetrability of its lead, Zero Dark Thirty is quite a hard film to love. Admire, yes. Enjoy, yes. But love? Its coldness and impersonality are nowhere more in evidence than in a scene in which, after watching President Obama declare that ‘the United States does not torture’ on national TV, Maya and her team turn coolly away and resume their business without batting an eyelid. The coldness of the characters in situations such as this is more alienating than alluring. It’s closer to dispassionate cruelty than to Bond-esque nonchalance. It goes without saying, therefore, that the accusation made by some critics that Zero Dark Thirty ‘glorifies torture’ is frankly absurd. I would go as far as to say that the character for whom I felt the most in the entire film was the tortured prisoner of the opening scenes.

The chilly bleakness of the film is well judged – were it any warmer it could easily have lapsed into nationalistic triumphalism – but may be a problem for those who  expect something with more heart. Then again, those looking for something less bleak were never going to find it here, in a film which was only ever going to end with one thing: a corpse.