Retrospective Film Review: Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is quite unlike any American war film you may have seen before. If Ben Kingsley’s Cosmo was right in Robert Redford’s 1992 film Sneakers, that “the world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data”, that his prophetic quote foreshadowed a digital age that was to define how wars are fought and won, then Kathryn Bigelow’s film certainly seems to play out that idea with sobriety and solemnity.

It’s really not until the film’s final moments, when Bin Laden’s compound is raided in the dead of night, that we get anything like the kind of gunplay that has been a defining trope of classic contemporary war films, and even then, far from the usual celebration of jingoistic violence. We view the action through a hazy green-tinted, night-visoned lens, the individual muted shots of Navy SEALs’ pistols reverberating through the house, the individual clatter of shell casings on the ground, unscored. It is even more remarkable then that in a bid to make Zero Dark Thirty as stoic, realistic, and underactioned as possible, these last few scenes are almost unbearably tense.

We see the film through the eyes of Maya, a CIA analyst in 2003, steely but green, shadowing Dan (Jason Clarke), a colleague at a US ‘Black Site’ in Pakistan (an unlisted area controlled by the military). Here, in the film’s first scenes, we see the muchdiscussed interrogation of a man with alleged links to Saudi terrorists. They’re grim and quite difficult to watch, and although Bigelow never gets to the knottier issue of torture as a valid pathway to military success, she doesn’t celebrate it either. That Maya’s induction into this world is heralded by Dan calmly asking her to pass him a water-filled jug to aid in the prisoner’s waterboarding is a shocking reminder of the means-to-an-end, single-mindedly obsessive objectives of the US government. Later, we also see American politicians denying the use of torture at US bases, and a passing comment about the new administration clamping down on officers involved in such behaviour; such scenes aren’t exactly trumpeted, but they’re there as a subtly acute reminder of prescient controversy.

As Maya, Jessica Chastain expands on an increasingly impressive body of work. Neither physically commanding as Sarah Connor or as emotionally unstable as Carrie Mathison, Maya’s trump card is her recognisable and human focus and drive. Come the finale, it’s a brave decision to have her, not in the midst of the action as tradition would have it, but watching events unfold on a monitor. She’s not an action hero (as a CIA analyst she spends the majority of her time actually analysing), but her actions – her whip-smart intelligence, irritation with listless higher authority, razor-sharp intuition – define the outcome and ultimately galvanise the heavy machinery of high-level military decision-making. Zero Dark Thirty is a highly competent thriller, thoughtfully assembled, and tremendously executed. We might all know the outcome of this story, but there’re no fanfares, cheers, or victory bells to be heard.