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.
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.