Zero Dark Thirty is military terminology for half past midnight, the time at which the pivotal raid to capture Osama bin Laden was scheduled by the CIA. There’s no more perfect title for a film this year, because it manages to suggest a witching hour, a veil of deadly secrecy, and a pinpoint-honed logistical operation all at once.
Straightaway, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie -a follow-up of sorts to The Hurt Locker, which won Oscars for her and this film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal-is ready to think on its feet, and puts paid to some impressively silly pre-release rumours that it’s out to “glorify” torture as a method of intelligence-gathering. There are many ways in which movies can glorify things, through camera angles, sound, performance, editing, and pretty much the whole arsenal at a director’s disposal, but Bigelow shuns the lot, and if you’re able to come away from the interrogation scenes feeling that a glorious goal has in any way been scored, you might need your head examined.
There’s no doubt that Boal’s research into the decade-long manhunt takes this film into some morally difficult places, but he’s principally relaying the facts about what techniques were used -water-boarding among them-in the actual, exhausting and labyrinthine search for bin Laden’s whereabouts. At no point does the movie insist that these were the only possible tools, or that any one piece of information was single-handedly vital. Boal is right to say that his script has been tossed around, sight unseen, as a political “chew toy”, partly because of military co-operation in shaping the narrative, but the Department of Defense had no vetting privilege, and Bigelow is ruthlessly determined to bring the horror of these sequences home.
As such, the first hour of the picture is dour, procedural and necessary. It has to convey the stalled efforts of analysts Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke), among many others, to penetrate the spider-web of misinformation keeping the al-Qaeda figurehead at large. Not unlike David Fincher’s Zodiac, which took us through the life-sapping and thwarted efforts of police and journalists in trying to apprehend a serial killer, the focus here is on legwork and its frustrations: the human cost of this grim job is as palpable as the determination Maya finds to keep pushing ahead with it.
Unlike Zodiac, we know that there’s actually an end in sight, but it often seems a million miles away, and that’s rather the point. Chastain begins to dominate the picture at the halfway stage, and grabs her chances with something like ferocity — what the character decides to sacrifice, in the process of following every lead and staking her career on the hunches she comes to trust, is having any other life at all. She shows us the buried tragedy of this, and other losses. The male ensemble around her keeps throwing up welcome surprises, whether we’re talking about long-useful supporting players (Harold Perrineau, for instance), or potent newcomers (Reda Kateb), or actors mainly familiar from comedy (Chris Pratt, Mark Duplass) making a solid mark. Still, it’s particularly special to see the perennially underutilised Jennifer Ehle on board, doing brilliant, substantial work as an initially testy CIA colleague whose friendship Maya earns. She’s every bit Chastain’s equal, and the film’s secret treasure. Finally, we’re at half past midnight, and Bigelow strides intently into the endgame, asking her composer, Alexandre Desplat, to goad the mission into life with his expert score.