2012 / Best Actress / Best Picture

Film #463: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

We move on to Bigelow’s next film Zero Dark Thirty which was also nominated for Best Picture however this she wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Again the film focused on a modern day war setting, this time the War on Terror with the lead characters on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Although it possessed quite macho themes, Zero Dark Thirty’s lead character was young CIA officer Maya. The film followed Maya from meek rookie to Osama obsessive as gradually the hunt for the terrorist mastermind engulfed her life. Originally the film was going to focus on the fruitless search for Osama straight after the World Trade Centre attacks however, following the capture and death of Bin Laden, Bigelow and Boal had to go back to square one. That to me is why the film feels incredibly fragmented with the first ninety minutes featuring Maya’s attempts to get close to Osama’s associates. It’s a frustrating watch as every time Maya feels like she’s getting somewhere she hits a brick wall or finds her plans wrapped up in red tape. The second part of the film sees Maya transported back to Washington after an attempt on her life in Pakistan as we watch her fight against the system again. The final third, which focuses exclusively on the army’s hunt for and eventual murder of Bin Laden, feels almost tacked on to the end. Although this is where the film is at its tensest, this final half an hour is separate from the rest of the film save a few shots of Maya that appear to have been thrown in for continuity. The fragmented feel of Zero Dark Thirty is slightly off-putting at times and whilst all three sections are well-made they don’t quite fit together. The scenes with Maya back in Washington are a particular drag and are only saved by James Gandolfini’s appearance as the CIA’s Director.

Despite my problems with the uneven structure of the film I think that Zero Dark Thirty is a step up on The Hurt Locker due to the fact that it has a proper story. As it’s based on true events you know what we’re building up to even though you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen on the way there. Boal and Bigelow punctuate the shocks well as there are several jump-out-of-you-seat moments such as when Maya and fellow CIA analyst Jessica experience a terror attack at a restaurant. In addition I felt I knew the character of Maya more so than I did any of the trio of bomb disposers in The Hurt Locker. Maya’s progression from slightly nervous analyst to confident woman who isn’t afraid to stand up to the CIA director is told well by Boal. The character is enhanced by Jessica Chastain’s fantastic performance which earned her a Best Actress nomination. Chastain brilliantly conveys all of Maya’s strengths and weaknesses which means that you start to feel for her as the film goes on. The fact that Chastain all but vanishes once the hunt for Bin Laden begins is one of the problems with the film for me. However I think she manages to save it right at the end with a tender moment as she boards a plane having finally succeeded in bringing down her nemesis.
The supporting cast is almost universally fantastic with special mention going to Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle and Joel Edgerton. Zero Dark Thirty’s other big plus point is Greig Fraser’s cinematography which employs a similar documentary-feel to Barry Ackroyd’s camera work in The Hurt Locker. This is especially relevant in the final section of the film as you feel at times like you’re part of the team who are being used to hunt down Osama. Zero Dark Thirty didn’t have nearly as much success as The Hurt Locker did and only managed to win one award in the Sound Editing category. In fact this wasn’t even a universal victory as the Zero Dark Thirty team found themselves tied with the sound effects team from the Bond film Skyfall. I do think it’s a shame that Zero Dark Thirty wasn’t as well-regarded by the Academy as The Hurt Locker as I believe it’s a superior film. Despite my problems with the structure I think the characters, performances and story are stronger than Bigelow’s Oscar-winning endeavour.

But one thing you can say without a doubt is that Bigelow broke through the barrier and will always be remembered for being the first female Best Director winner. Unfortunately, since her win no other women have been nominated despite several female-helmed projects featuring in the Best Picture category. I do feel this balance needs to be addressed soon and I’m hoping it won’t be long before somebody joins Bigelow in the female Best Director winner’s club.


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