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Zero Dark Thirty

Film is an extraordinary medium in that it empowers filmmakers to sign a unique contract with their audience that is intimate, passionate and daring. Following their success on The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-winning creative duo of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deliver another hard-hitting pact with Zero Dark Thirty.
In contrast to fictional characters thrown into the terrifying real world of Iraq in Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is distinctive and singular in its approach; it is an amalgam of action film and investigative reporting and drama, neither a work of fiction nor a documentary, but an exciting hybrid that tracks closely what is known of the intelligence hunt for Osama bin Laden, while shedding new light on the secretive, dark corridors of the War On Terror. The intriguing title is military jargon for the dark of night and also refers to the moment-12.30 am-when the Navy SEALs first stepped foot on the Bin Laden compound.

An exceptional film

Zero Dark Thirty is an exceptional film that not only connects with Bigelow on a personal level - as a filmmaker who made history as the first woman to earn a Best Director Oscar statuette - but a story that details the personal quest of a woman in the militant male-dominated world of brutal interrogation with terrorists. What makes Zero Dark Thirty extra special is that it is a film that feels as if someone is letting you in on a secret that no one knows about. Yes, you might have heard of the detailed account on news reports or compare it to films dealing with similar issues, but the silent voyeurism of Zero Dark Thirty is captivating from start to finish and never lets go.

Like a lover whispering a secret into another's ear, or a friend gently sharing scandalous information, Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is an intimate odyssey into what we think we know and, ultimately, reveals a close encounter that is sacred and private. We share this journey with Jessica Chastain, who delivers an astounding performance as a woman who crosses the threshold into a world fraught with danger, where nothing is certain and everything is at risk. Equally impressive is Australian actor Jason Clarke, a CIA operative who initiates her right away into the wrenching work of handling hostile terrorists; Clarke's personal experience comes into play in CIA interrogations, but they also get mixed in with adrenaline and primal instincts as frustrations grow.

Meticulous screenplay

The sensationalistic operation of searching for Bin Laden is extremely difficult to capture, but Boal's meticulous screenplay confirms his status as the world's best investigative reporter, journalist and screenwriter; his intensive research, personal experience and passion indisputably results in a great story told with meaningful intent.

What makes Boal's screenplay unique, further amplified and complimented by Bigelow's perceptive interpretation, is that it never becomes a subjective scrutiny, but an objective observation that respectfully tells its story without becoming exploitative. With subject matters dealing with headline news it is so easy to use it as a tool for propaganda, but Zero Dark Thirty never exploits its story or characters; in fact, it strips the characters bare and reveals a vulnerable fragility that further enhances the emotional connection between film and its audience. It allows its audience to have an empathetic understanding of issues that are controversial and, through its unique medium, adds incredible texture through its visual exploration. Zero Dark Thirty shares its secret honestly without becoming scandalous.

It is extremely difficult to grasp fully the world that Zero Dark Thirty explores; a war zone and hunting ground where a cat-and-mouse hunt ensues between rebel and oppressor; between terrorist (or freedom fighter) and militants, between political activists and their victims, between the filmmaker and its audience.

A dangerous and terrifying odyssey

It's a dangerous and terrifying odyssey into the human condition, in which right and wrong blur into a surreal nightmare. Can anyone ever fully comprehend what motivates acts of terrorism, revenge or obsession? These are personal issues and with films like Zero Dark Thirty, they become communal, when storytellers effectively communicate the essence of fear and fantasy with its audience. This experience of sharing fosters listening and, in the end, allows us to be closer to a truth we mostly avoid or refuse to understand.

Bigelow skilfully manages to create a suspenseful telling that is revealing, but equally meaningful; she proves that it is vital to be fully immersed in a visceral experience, one that is visual and explodes with emotion.

Zero Dark Thirty poignantly examines the effect of our actions on those who share our lives; our loved ones, families, friends, strangers and, in particular, children. If what we do defines who we are, Zero Dark Thirty definitely exposes the darker side of humanity and how its cruelty can destroy the world, but also shows how important it is to remain human, no matter how difficult it can sometimes be to endure what few understand.

A film like Dark Zero Thirty sets us free from unknown fears and paranoia, and, in its own way, becomes a dignified freedom fighter for self-expression and human rights.

Behind the scenes

In the storied history of manhunts for international criminals, the quest for Osama bin Laden has no real precedent. "It is the story of finding a very sharp needle in a very large haystack," noted director Kathryn Bigelow. "Once Bin Laden escaped from Afghanistan, he fenced himself in with a byzantine network that took years and years to unravel. And what I think is so intriguing about Mark's script is the way it tracks all the minute steps, in a way that's dramatic yet totally unsentimental, unsparing, and unsettling. This is a very raw account." Where would the breakthroughs come? What clues might give Bin Laden's location away? Could Al Qaeda operatives be turned?

While these were all essential questions, for Bigelow and Boal a more fundamental question loomed: who were the CIA operatives who refused to give up and stayed on Bin Laden's trail even when it went cold and the world was distracted by other crises? For the first time, a film focuses on the human dimension of that story, illustrating the internal struggle of the operatives and the overwhelming toll of the mission.

"The question for me as a filmmaker was: How do you tie all the pieces of this epic story together in a way that will be tonally united and all in the same register?" said Bigelow. "Mark's research and script brought the breadth of it, from Afghanistan to Washington to Pakistan, to life. And then it became a kind of instinctual process, moment by moment, scene by scene, of telling the story with restraint at every level. It was both a massive undertaking and a very careful, subtle undertaking and there is no way I could have made Zero Dark Thirty without all the experiences I've had as a filmmaker so far."


About Daniel Dercksen

As a freelance film and theatre journalist for more than 30 years, published playwright and creator of the independent training initiative The Writing Studio, Daniel Dercksen received the number one spot for most popular lifestyle contributor for 2012, 2014 and 2015, and 2nd spot in 2016 on