As events on the ground moved into directions no one could have predicted, what started out as a film about the elusiveness of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden by The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal shifted, halfway through pre-production, into a film about the ten-year-long chase and killing of Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty also became the single most controversial film of the 2012/13 season, at the heart of a political firestorm around the depiction of the torture techniques the CIA used after 9/11, and around whether those depictions either endorse or denounce it. Mr. Boal, who scripted based on extensive personal research, calls Zero Dark Thirty a "political Rorschach test" as to where any given viewer stands on the debate, but the fallout has pretty much sidestepped the film's extraordinary cinematic qualities and the way it slots neatly into Ms. Bigelow's oeuvre both thematically and stylistically.

     Retaining her fascination with the ritual, masculine bonds of men of action, while putting front and center a female heroine (Jessica Chastain) who is regularly made aware covert action is a man's world, the film asks hard questions about sacrifice and humanity; it portrays the raw adrenaline and tingling sensation of being on the right track, as well as the queasy moments of doubt when you start asking whether all of this is worth it. And through the character of Maya, the leading case officer who admits at one point she has done nothing else since she joined the CIA but hunt Bin Laden, Ms. Bigelow also presents a chilling insight into the American heart of darkness, the biblical "eye for an eye", a need to make things right by vowing revenge, by needing payback. The intensity with which the laser-focussed Maya hunts her prey can also be seen as the borderline-obsessive behaviour demanded of a filmmaker aiming to set up a project she believes in against all odds.

     Maya's stubborness and belief in herself, remarkably portrayed by Ms. Chastain, the current "it actress" of American cinema, could be construed as making the character an equal or double of Ms. Bigelow, especially in her no-nonsense, best-tool-for-the-job attitude towards her chosen trade. And the director frames this tale of revenge and obsession as a singularly streamlined missile of a movie, not so much edited or structured but precision-machine-tooled with minimal means to maximum effect. A model of economical filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty does not feature one scene, one plan, one cut, one frame that isn't strictly necessary to propel forward the director's vision. Because it is a vision, and one that builds relentlessly, gaining speed along the way, from the initial stumbles and false starts of the investigation to a progressively busier, tenser chase, in a sort of blown-up procedural taking place in a global scale and shot with a quiet but resilient professionalism that never draws attention to itself and gets the job done magnificently.

     Complex but never confounding, never reducing its subject to pithy soundbites or trite generalisations, Zero Dark Thirty is the work of a master filmmaker perfectly at ease with the tools of her trade; take away the politics and, regardless of where you stand on the debate, this is a lesson in filmmaking whose specifics are very likely to go sadly unheralded.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramírez, James Gandolfini

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: Mark Boal
Cinematography: Greig Fraser  (colour by Deluxe)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Jeremy Hindle
Costumes: George L. Little
Editors: Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg
Producers: Mr. Boal, Ms. Bigelow, Megan Ellison (Annapurna Pictures, First Light Productions, Mark Boal Productions)
USA, 2012, 157 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), January 10th 2013


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