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Film review: ZERO DARK THIRTY, from Built For Speed

Zero Dark Thirty, which is director Katherine Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, describes the 10 year CIA mission that lead to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

With this film it again seems that the movies are borrowing from TV rather than the other way around.  Much like The Wire, Zero Dark Thirty is a detailed procedural with a detached, forensic approach that mostly avoids conventional drama.  Also, its Middle Eastern milieu, visual style, pacing and predilection for intense verbal clashes recall TV’s Homeland.  Fans of those TV shows should revel in Zero’s dry efficiency and narrative density.  Others may see this as a drawback as Zero Dark Thirty seems to be more a remarkable technical construction rather than a moving piece of art.

Despite the clinical approach Bigelow is able to generate considerable tension in some scenes particularly during the raid itself which is nerve-jangling even though we know the outcome.

Many will also have qualms, though, with the film’s uncertain political position.  At various points the film seems to critique the US Government’s approach to the investigation, including its use of brutal torture to extract information but at other times it seems to support such measures.  Ultimately, however, the film avoids imposing any discernible value system on these vital issues. While we might applaud films that avoid moralising clichés, it doesn’t feel right that a film examining the events that have caused the biggest global political upheaval in the last 40 years should pass no judgement on the morality of its characters’ actions.

Few, however, would doubt the film’s intellectual rigour in its portrayal of the daily complexities of work in the intelligence field and in its dissection of the bureaucratic layers agents must confront.  At times, however, the rapid accumulation of sketchy information about the multitude of al-Qeada lieutenants becomes confusing.  Real agents probably face such a daunting task face but it tends to sap the film’s momentum.

Bigelow’s attempt to attach a human drama to the investigation, by having distressed CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) obsessively pursue Osama like Captain Ahab, isn’t entirely successful. Maya’s increasingly crazed and obnoxious behaviour is at odds with the sober nature of the film and would probably see her sacked in a real organisation.

In what seems to be a trend in Bigelow movies, Zero features a name Aussie actor in an underwritten role.  Here Joel Edgerton appears briefly as a navy seal but his character has so few lines he’s completely unmemorable.

This is certainly the work of a filmmaker with a masterful control of form but not all aspects of that filmic approach are entirely satisfying or, in the case of its apparent acceptance of torture, acceptable.

Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.

Classification: M

Director(s): Kathryn Bigelow

Release date: 31st Jan 2013

Running time: 157 mins.

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