It is a testament to the exceptional directing prowess of Katherine Bigelow that Zero Dark Thirty stands as such a gripping and thoroughly detailed chronicle of the events surrounding the hunt for OBL. It’s not just a storytelling triumph but also a major cinematic achievement.
The biggest strength of the film, in fact, is how unglamourous it is. Bigelow de-glamourises and de-Hollywoodises the story with a crankshaft. This is not an action movie as much as it is a stunning exercise in character and plot development. Neither is there any chest thumping American sloganeering nor is the film an Army recruiting commercial. And unlike most Hollywood movies, Bigelow’s film is written around a strong female character, one that is played to searing detail and strength by the lovely Jessica Chastain.
Nitpicking in Zero Dark Thirty would be nothing but moaning. One apparent nadir of the film is the underdeveloped SEAL characters. That couldn’t be helped because the SEAL Team Six personnel are nameless and faceless ghosts and developing those characters would have felt tacked on. Naturally it is impossible to squeeze in all the details in one movie, only a full-blown miniseries would accomplish that feat. The actors (Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt) who play the Seals manage to leave a mark despite having very brief roles and spending majority of the time under the helmets. The supporting cast of CIA operatives including Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler, Stephan Dillane and Jennifer Ehle are written to perfection. And as a result of the insane amount of data crammed in those two and half hours, Zero Dark Thirty whizzes by like a bullet.
You know how the film is going to end, yet nothing can prepare you for the blistering final 20 minutes at the Abbotabad compound. Bigelow times the raid to stunning specifics, matching its runtime to the actual raid, superbly detailing the military tactics, without selling out and adding in loud gunfire and Call of Duty style flashbangs. It’s pretty much a masterclass on how to craft heart stopping tension and gritty realism without using lazy techniques like shaky cameras and a cacophony of yelling and screaming.
Prepare to have your expectations challenged — because the film will blow you away, right from its unsettling black screen opening to the backdrop of 9/11 audio to the end. And just like The Hurt Locker, it will keep brewing like a tenement fire in your skulls long after you’ve left the theatre.