Given that the ending of Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is as widely known as those of Apollo 13 or Titanic, it seems extraordinary that she and screenwriter Mark Boal originally set out to make a film about the fruitless, decade-long manhunt for 9/11 architect Osama Bin Laden, before he was found and killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011. The surprise real-life turn of events gifted the filmmakers a powerful final sequence for their two-and-a-half-hour Best Picture nominee, yet from the outset is clear that their interest lies less in the end game itself, than in the events leading up to it.
Not since The Conversation has the reality of the eavesdrop-and-extrapolate world of the professional spy been so meticulously described, as we bear witness to the dogged determination of CIA agent ‘Maya’ (Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain) to prove to her superiors (played here by Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini) that one of the countless Arabic names provided by detainees under torture (make of that what you will; Bigelow doesn’t editorialize) could lead to Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Imagine looking for a needle in what you hope may be the right haystack, while countless pieces of hay are giving unreliable information about the needle’s whereabouts – often for money, or under duress – and you have some idea what ‘Maya’ and her fellow CIA spooks were up against.
Although structurally chronological, and based on eye-witness accounts of the real-life operation, Zero Dark Thirty takes place in the intriguing no-man’s-land between drama and documentary (a space previously occupied by Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 film United 93), lacking the customary ‘Hollywoodization’ of the former, or the explanatory narration and talking heads of the latter. While some may miss the action of a more traditional approach – for those people, Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden is also available – or the deeper character insight of, say, The Hurt Locker or Homeland (there are no scenes of Maya, or any other character, in civilian life), Bigelow’s judgment is impeccable, allowing the ostensibly true story to unfold, as it happened, without politicizing, editorializing or over-dramatizing it. Bigelow has come under fire for refusing to address the issue of torture head-on. But what seemed at first glance as a case of trying to have her cake and eat it, looks more like a case of having a story and telling it. Brilliantly. ★★★★★
EXTRAS Given the level of artistic licence at work in the ‘fictionalized true story’, a play-by-play director’s commentary was unlikely to happen. Snippets of background are spread across the four featurettes (Blu-ray only), but no real revelations: it’s only when you’ve watched all 25 minutes’ worth that you realise you haven’t learned anything about the story behind the story, except the meaning of the title (military lingo for half past midnight). ★★★