Zero Dark Thirty, a film “based on first-hand accounts of real events”, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (known for The Hurt Locker) is a gritty documentary style account of the arduous and pain-staking struggle to capture Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. The events of the film are relayed to the audience through the C.I.A. agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, who is plucked from Washington D.C. straight into the midst of the action at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan.
Maya is depicted as a young and brilliant professional whose unrelenting persistence in her quest to bring down Bin Laden physically deteriorates and consumes her. The film is set over the ten-year span from the attacks of 9/11, up to the successful implementation of the operation to locate and kill Bin Laden. One of the first scenes, a no-holds barred,brutal torture sequence, sets the tone for the entirety of the film; a realistic and unabashed depiction of the covert actions of the C.I.A.
Bigelow makes a conscious decision to touch upon the controversy surrounding torture by including a clip of Obama’s interview in which he claims “America does not torture”, a statement which hangs over the agents as they interrogate and torture the prisoners. Although the film is not overtly negative in its portrayal of the events, it is possible to interpret the film as an indictment of the U.S. government and its approach to fighting terrorism.
The controversial depiction of the operation is heightened by Maya’s obsessive dedication to the job, a mission that sees her constantly thrown in the path of danger, with the death of her colleagues becoming part of her daily reality.
However, instead of allowing the intense pressures to break her down, Maya’s resolve is strengthened in the face of adversity and eventually she is recognised by her superiors as a force to be reckoned with. As an intense and nail-biting political thriller, Zero Dark Thirty draws comparisons to Ben Affleck’s award-winning film Argo. Both films are successful fact-based accounts of monumental achievements in U.S. history. Unlike Argo, however, Bigelow makes almost no attempt to inject Hollywood style drama into her film and, in doing so, protects the integrity of the film and avoids glamourising war. The absence of any form of victory parade allows the audience to debate the actions surrounding the U.S. government.
While Bigelow’s decision to veer away from a glamorised depiction of the manhunt had the potential to leave Zero Dark Thirty as a dry documentary, fascinated with an overabundance of facts and figures, it thankfully takes the hunt for Bin Laden as a intensely personal affair.
All in all, Jessica Chastain gives a powerful and compelling performance that highlights the haunting reality of covert C.I.A. operations, creating a lingering and lasting impact with the viewer. Without fictionalising or over-dramatizing the true series of events, this film manages to keep the audience riveted right up until the final scene.