Jan 222013


It’s the story we all know the ending to, but you’ve never seen it from this perspective. Jessica Chastain leads the 10 year hunt for Bin Laden in the gripping Zero Dark Thirty. Review after the jump.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA intelligence officer who was recruited straight out of high school and has dedicated her life to one thing – gathering intelligence on al-Qaeda and their leader Osama bin Laden. Her single-minded focus and skills see her shipped off to work out of the US embassy in Pakistan, where she becomes a key member in the hunt for al-Qaeda members in the post 9/11 world. Through the use of torture, research and well-educated hunches, Maya spearheads the hunt for the man she believes will lead them to bin Laden.

Pakistan isn’t easy, and Maya is faced with “field work” that even the most rigid of training would be hard pressed to prepare anyone for. She is required to first become accustomed with the use of torture, and then adjust to intelligence gathering without it. She comes up against many opponents, both from within her own team and further up the government food chain, but her stubborn resolve rarely waivers, even in the face of life-threatening situations, and painful losses. For her finding bin Laden is everything, she knows nothing else and won’t stop until the biggest perceived threat to US security is eliminated.


Despite knowing how the story ends, I was completed engaged in Zero Dark Thirty – this is  a film that grips you from the get go, and has you in a state of mild anxiety throughout. I had never really given much thought into the extensive groundwork that goes into these long-term operations – for the general public it’s just a tiny fragment of the news until the big one happens. There is very little luck and a whole lot of man power behind it all. The excruciating manual work that went into this was extraordinary.

While Chastain gives another good performance, I wasn’t particularly engaged or invested in her character. Maya is so dedicated to her job, that she allows little personality or warmth to show through her tough exterior. We see no real evidence of a social life, love interests, or anything at all not related to the hunt for bin Laden. So while I understand that the character didn’t really engage with anyone within the film, and therefore I [as an audience member] found it hard to engage with her, I did find that this lessened the emotional impact that the film had on me.

The stellar performances from the extensive ensemble cast (including the likes of Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini & Jennifer Ehle)  run deep, and they elevate the film to something special. Mark Strong as an under-pressure senior CIA official and [Australian] Jason Clarke as a fellow operative from whom Maya learned the ropes were particularly impressive. Clarke had a difficult role as an operative who seemed to be responsible for enforcing much of physical and mental torture employed to gain information. He impressed with his calm and measured performance in some of the most uncomfortable scenes.


The torture scenes have gained a lot of press (particularly in the USA), and the film makers have been accused by some of endorsing the practice. Bigelow has stated she is against torture, but that it wasn’t right to ignore that it happened. While I was incredibly uncomfortable during the torture scenes, I don’t feel that they endorsed or glamourised the practice in any way. They were a horrific part of the war, but they were part of it.

Technically this film is impressive, with the photography of the night raid scenes particularly effective in both capturing the action clearly, and transporting you right into the centre of it. Finally, I have to give much praise to the fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat which tied the film together. This score perfectly matched each scene it accompanied, never overwhelming the scene or forcing the audience to feel a certain way. It [the score] was much like our tension and nerves, in the way it simmered just below the surface – restrained but threatening to break at any point.

Zero Dark Thirty tells a story you think you know in a way that constantly astounds and surprises. This is a must-see at the cinema.


By Sam McCosh


The Facts

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer(s): Mark Boal (screenplay)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler
Runtime: 157 minutes
Release date(s): Australia & New Zealand: January 31 2013; USA: January 11 2013