Zero Dark Thirty Reviewed

Art & Culture

Kathryn Bigelow has always loved a fanatic. After all, her first big hit was Point Break. But if Patrick Swayze’s whooping, surfing, skydiving, bankrobber was an extremist, he was also a man of the nineties: a nihilist, driven to new experiences primarily for the way they acted on his nerve-endings. As the years have gone by Bigelow seems to have become interested in a new kind of character. They’re still extreme people, the proper subjects for action cinema, the defecting submarine captain of K-19 The Widowmaker, or the ace bomb disposal experts of the Hurt Locker, but they’re men with a cause. Usually one that goes further than the desire to push Keanu Reeves out of a plane.

So there’s a sense in which she may have felt the subject of her latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, was made for her. Billed as ‘history’s biggest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man’ it asks the question: If Osama Bin Laden was a fanatic, what kind of fanatic did it take to track him down?
The answer she gives us is a surprising one. The story focuses on the efforts of one fictional CIA operative, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. With her burning red hair and her sharp features she looks less like an action hero than a novice nun. Indeed the quality that makes her suited to her mission isn’t cleverness (all the CIA operatives have PhDs) or bravery (we see her cowering under gunfire) but faith. A crazy certainty that one particular Al Qaeda courier, named under torture at the very beginning of the film, will lead them to the jackpot. While the other field agents, almost as brutalised by the waterboarding and dog-collaring as their victims, and scared of the retribution of the incoming administration, take desk jobs at Langley, Maya doggedly waits the mission out. Her pursuit of her man isn’t characterised by rooftop chase sequences but bad-tempered meetings with people that don’t respect her, the boredom of surveillance, the terrible inertia of the CIA bureaucracy. In a culture where everyone deals in percentages of risk, to be certain is to be insane. But it turns out that a little craziness is just what the US government needs.
The final showdown, when it comes, takes all of 15 minutes. Some viewers have found this frustrating – so much waiting, for so little action. But this, surely, is closer to the reality of intelligence work. The Navy SEALS are efficient killers, but not much more than the world’s most deadly jocks. Bigelow leaves us in no doubt as to whom the hero of this movie is. If most action films make impossible acts seem real, Bigelow shows us how real people can do seemingly impossible things.
Maya’s reward at the end of all this: a ride in an empty cargo plane. How could her zeal be repaid? Even if you give everything for your country, it can never give you a hug. Success, in such cases, is a tragic disappointment.
This is an intelligent, exciting film. You should really see it.
William Fowler