Every so often a film comes along that courts controversy for whatever reason. A Clockwork Orange was controversial because it featured rape scenes, Brokeback Mountain was considered controversial because of its portrayal of homosexuality, and there are countless others that have had the Mary Whitehouses of this world wagging their fingers disapprovingly. Now Zero Dark Thirty, the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow, is another to get people jumping on their high horse due to its apparent glorification of torture.
Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the hunt and assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It is largely based on fact although it’s fair to say that some embellishment and artistic license has occurred. The original script was about the fruitless hunt for the Al Qaeda figure as it was written before his death, but this was changed to include his eventual demise. More specifically, the film focuses on CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her involvement in locating where Bin Laden was hiding.
This issue of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is little more than a fuss over nothing. Bigelow defended herself by saying that portraying the torture is not the same as excusing it and that’s spot on the money. It’s an honest telling and leaving out the torture would do the film a disservice. Ethics don’t come into it here.
It’s a somewhat slower film than some may expect, punctuated with the occasional terrorist explosion, although the real meat of the story comes in Maya’s constant battle with her superiors. The sporadic action set pieces are, however, a welcome change of pace although they do occasionally feel like the film trying to remind us who the bad guys are and that everything the CIA are doing is justified. The final act, the actual assassination of Bin Laden, is superbly filmed (at times through nothing more than night vision) and is incredibly tense even though you know pretty much how it’s going to play out.
Jessica Chastain gives a very good (but no better than very good) performance as Maya and it’s interesting to see the character grow in confidence and stature from timid at the outset to ballsy and assertive by the film’s conclusion. Jason Clarke and Mark Strong also give entertaining turns in their respective roles of fellow CIA operative and CIA director.
Zero Dark Thirty could well have been flag waving propaganda and there is somewhat of a sense of that at times, be it intended or accidental. Despite that, it’s also an incredibly well made film, superbly paced and with a strong female lead that gives the film more of an identity. However, whether this is how events really did play out or whether this is what we’re encouraged to believe is a different matter.