Film review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

(M) ***

Director: Kathryn Bigelow.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong.

DIRECTOR Kathryn Bigelow won the best director Oscar for her film The Hurt Locker, which also won for best film.

Focusing on a group of bomb disposal experts working during the Iraq War, it captured the effect of the mission on the people.

Still fascinated with the fall-out of September 11 and the ongoing War on Terror, Bigelow has turned her attention to the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, which has also been nominated for a best film Oscar.

This time, it's all about the mission. The people, aside from Jessica Chastain's character Maya, are mostly cyphers - worker ants in the CIA's international network, trying to find the few scant bread crumbs left behind by bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is definitely more about the bread crumbs than the ants.

It was the personalities within the situations of The Hurt Locker that made that film so great. Without the personalities or charisma, Zero Dark Thirty comes off as interesting as opposed to enjoyable, and intriguing as opposed to entertaining, and certainly less memorable than Bigelow's previous film.

For most of its lengthy running time (about two hours and 40 minutes), Zero Dark Thirty is a terrorism procedural focusing on the techniques used to unravel the al-Qaeda honcho's hiding place - from torture to phone-tapping, from on-the-ground sleuthing to good old-fashioned bribery.

For the last act, it's an action movie that feels slightly like video games such as Call Of Duty - this is a compliment, by the way, as the raid on bin Laden's compound is immersive and well executed.

The film's biggest asset is Chastain, so impressive in The Help and excellent here as Maya, a character supposedly based on the real-life agent who doggedly chased the lead that eventually led to bin Laden.

Clarke is also good as Dan, a fellow agent who engages in the most controversial scenes, which involve "enhanced interrogation techniques" - a lovely little euphemism for "torture".

This brings us to the biggest controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty - the suggestion that it implicitly supports torture, as it sets up a plot trail that says "torturing terrorists led to the killing of bin Laden, so torture is a good thing".

It's highly likely, considering all the news reports over the last decade, that torture was used in the hunt for bin Laden, and this movie is more about the methods used in the hunt. Some critics appear to be getting confused - torture is a bad thing in the real world, movies reflecting the fact that torture really happened in the real world in this situation are not necessarily a bad thing.

Is it glorifying torture? No, unlike, say, Hostel and films of its ilk that focus on torture for torture's sake. Zero Dark Thirty's interrogation scenes leaves you with a dirty feeling and a bad taste in your mouth, but they serve a purpose. They show the lows the US government sank to in its quest for revenge against those behind September 11.

The filmmakers have prided themselves on the fact the movie's "based on actual events", so much so that a senate committee is investigating whether Bigelow and writer Mark Boal had access to too much classified information. Surely this goes some way to the veracity of the film as well.

But as interesting as all this is, it doesn't make Zero Dark Thirty a rivetting or necessary experience. Yes, it's quality filmmaking about a quality subject, but unless it wins the best film Oscar come February 24, this movie won't be remembered as anything other than the best film that was ever made about the search for bin Laden.

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