Review: Zero Dark Thirty (15)

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The lack of major stars in Kathryn Bigelow’s cat-and-mouse thriller seems to suggest that she wanted the story to take precedence.

And in making this an anti-biopic – the central protagonist, Osama bin Laden, is constantly referenced though never actually seen in any detail – the hunt for the world’s most wanted man becomes a jigsaw puzzle that takes ten agonising years to complete.

The focus of this portrait of how to achieve victory by attrition is an enigmatic CIA agent named Maya, played with icy detachment by Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain. She embodies the single-minded drive to locate bin Laden and believed in herself when her peers and superiors had long ago lost faith. Hers is a painstaking investigation that involves many deaths on both sides of the divide.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark (The Hurt Locker) Boal steer clear of triumphalism – this is distinctly not a flag-waving picture of gung-ho machismo. On the contrary, the US administration, its spooks and even its special forces are censured in a film that is unlikely to please anyone. The principal point of contention is over torture. Bigelow presents waterboarding as an accepted form of interrogation. Even Maya, when asked for help by a suspect, coldly responds “You can help yourself by being truthful.”

The deliberate dispassion with which Bigelow and Boal treat their subject contrasts sharply with Maya’s obsessive need to fulfil her mission. This is a woman operating on adrenaline. She has no close friends – her only link to a conventional life is killed – and no concept of normality.

Zero Dark Thirty requires its 157-minute running time in order to effectively unravel its needle-in-a-haystack premise. But this is a film of two halves. The first details the tortuous route to confirming bin Laden’s hiding place. The second incorporates the raid that resulted in his death, with the 24-minute episode shot in real time.

A complex ensemble piece peppered with familiar faces such as James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton and even John Barrowman in a bit part, this is a film overshadowed by the spectre of its inscrutable target – someone Bigelow casts as a mighty foe without ever having to show his face.

On general release