Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Written by: Dee Pilgrim

Taking on the boys at their own game – and winning – has become something of a habit for director Kathryn Bigelow.

In a world where females at the helm of action movies are almost as hard to come by as hens’ teeth, she’s been scoring hits since Point Break, and Zero Dark Thirty is sure to continue her successful run.

Having explored the world of bomb disposal operatives in The Hurt Locker, here she turns her attention to the CIA and the meticulous research and surveillance carried out by agents in their hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Much of the film is carried By Jessica Chastain, playing CIA agent Mia, who refused to give up the search for the Western world’s most wanted man, when even her superiors had moved on to other things. For years, and through a number of personnel changes within her department, Mia doggedly followed up every lead, however tenuous, and every tapped phone message, however fleeting, in order to get her man. That some of the intelligence leading to Bin Laden’s whereabouts was obtained under torture is certainly not glossed over, but it is also not glorified, instead it is seen as brutal and inhuman and yet justified in the face of a series of terrorist attacks that Bin Laden orchestrates until Mia finally (after 10 long years) gets her breakthrough.

This meticulous leg and paperwork forms the first half of the movie, but the pace and the tension ratchets up significantly in the second half when Mia locates Bin Laden’s hideaway and an attack by a crack bunch of marines is sanctioned. Using night vision lighting and a lot of hand-held camerawork Bigelow takes you right into the heart of the action, into the uncertainty and seconds-ticking-away stress of entering every stairwell and negotiating every dark doorway and corner of Bin Laden’s compound.

This is in such contrast to the measured pacing of the first half of the film sometimes it almost feels forced, but it also gives you an overwhelming sense that time really is of the essence here. And yet, when the inevitable outcome is reached, there is no flash of triumphalism but more a quiet sense of achievement, of a job completed so let’s pack our bags and go home.

It’s no wonder Chastain has been Oscar nominated for the role of Mia; she inhabits this woman’s skin like a winter coat she won’t shuck off even in a centrally-heated office. As Mia she eats, breathes, and sleeps the hunt for Bin Laden and she will not be sidelined – even to the extent of threatening her boss and chalking up the number of days since she located the hideaway and nothing has been done about it on the glass door to his office. However, in all ways (as an actress and as a character) she isn’t acting alone and there is some excellent support work from the ensemble cast, especially Jennifer Ehle and Jason Clarke as fellow agents and Mark Strong as her boss and James Gandolfini as his boss.

One wonders after two such politically tense action dramas if Bigelow will choose lighter subject material for her next venture – she has certainly proved with Zero Dark Thirty that action movies are not just the preserve of boys, but that girls can do gritty, realistic, suspenseful and dark just as well.


Author: Dee Pilgrim

Dee always knew she wanted to make her living from writing and so trained as a journalist before working for a variety of music and women’s titles including Sounds, Company, Cosmopolitan, Ms London, New Woman, and Girl About Town. After going freelance she concentrated on celebrity interviews and film, theatre, music and restaurant reviews. Her love of film goes back to her very first cinema experience at the age of five when her mother took her to see Bambi. She cried. At one time she was the Film Editor for NOW magazine and also the secretary for the film section of the Critics’ Circle and the celebrity coordinator for its annual film awards’ event. She has written a number of books for teenagers through Trotman Publishing, including five Real Life Guides to vocational careers (including Carpentry, Plumbing and Catering), and also three books on Real Life Issues (Money, Bereavement and Self Harm). Her favourite film is still Bladerunner.

Read more posts by

Responses to Review: Zero Dark Thirty

    Leave a comment