Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



27 December



Benazir Bhutto assassinated, 2007

On this day in 2007, Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party and a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, died in a bomb attack at a political rally in Rawalpindi. She was campaigning in the upcoming general election. A glamorous figure in Pakistani politics, she was the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and had been elected Prime Minister at the age of 35, in 1989, the first woman to lead a Muslim country. Though because of the presidential system, Bhutto was constantly in a struggle for executive power with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who eventually dismissed her government. She was elected again in 1993, survived a coup d’état by renegade military officers in 1995, only to be dismissed again by the president (now Farooq Leghari) in 1996, on the grounds of corruption. She had returned only in 2007 after a period of self-exile, after coming to an understanding with President Pervez Musharraf that the corruption charges against her would be dropped. She arrived back in Pakistan on 18 October and there was an immediate attempt on her life, by a suicide bomber who killed 136 people and injured 450. On 8 December three gunmen attacked Bhutto’s office and killed three of her supporters. On 27 December, while standing up through the sunroof of her bulletproof car to wave to crowds after leaving a political rally, she was shot by a gunman and at the same time explosives were detonated. She died shortly afterwards, most likely as a result of head trauma caused by the blast. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, though the Bhutto family has always maintained that Musharraf was aware of an impending attack by the Taliban but failed to pass on this knowledge to Bhutto’s protectors.




Zero Dark Thirty (2012, dir: Kathryn Bigelow)

“A lot of my friends have died trying to do this; I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.” The key line of dialogue spoken by Jessica Chastain around halfway through Kathryn Bigelow’s long film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden contains the film’s key word – spared. It’s biblical, from the account of the Passover. In the character of Pakistan-based CIA operative Maya (Chastain) – who believes Bin Laden is probably hiding in Pakistan in plain sight – we have the obsessive on the hunt for the fanatic, the leader of a one-woman holy war, a crusader against a jihadist. If screenplay writer Mark Boal is suggesting that the West too has become fanatical in its insistence on spreading its values around the world, he’s saying it by the mere existence of Maya. Look for any more critical political perspective and you’ll have to work for it – whether the use of torture is justified, ethically and practically, is introduced as an idea, then dropped fairly quickly, for example. These odd fleeting moments apart, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a film of nuance – the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and that’s the end of it. Though it looks like a spy procedural – director Kathryn Bigelow has fully digested the lessons learned from the Bourne films – it is in fact a war movie. Context, history, realpolitik, they’re all pretty much absent, much as they were in Bigelow’s Iraq movie, The Hurt Locker, which also focused on the guys fighting the war rather than the war itself. Which is not to say it isn’t impressive – in the way it slowly and carefully introduces key players (in particular a brilliantly authoritative Jennifer Ehle – who’d have thought she was once Mr Darcy’s prim English love object in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice), in the way that it establishes story arcs that run for the decade it covers, from Maya’s first introduction and her bratty assessment of the situation – “Pakistan’s kinda fucked up” – to her increasing obsession with finding Bin Laden and her loss of comrades on the way. And finally, as we enter the home strait – showtime – we realise we have been carefully introduced to the Navy Seals who are eventually going to infiltrate Bin Laden’s compound at night, shooting as they go, in an extended 25 minute sequence which is impressive not only because it makes you catch your breath for the duration, but because it also has the real ring of truth about it.



Why Watch?


  • It engages with the controversy about evidence gained by torture
  • Its strong cast includes Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini
  • Jessica Chastain carries the entire movie
  • The raid itself – surely the most convincing ever filmed


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Zero Dark Thirty – at Amazon





10 June 2013-06-10

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Out in the UK this week




Zero Dark Thirty (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

“A lot of my friends have died trying to do this; I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.” The key line of dialogue, as uttered by Jessica Chastain in the drama about the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. “Spared” – there’s a faintly biblical colour to that word and it’s deliberate. Mark Boal’s script is not only mechanically extremely good – so many characters are introduced so well in such a short time – but it also deals, with varying degrees of depth, with matters arising from the aftermath of 9/11. The use of torture as a way of extracting life-saving information; the notion that the West launched a crusade against Bin Laden’s jihad; that fanaticism can be found on both sides. Director Kathryn Bigelow has watched and internalised the lessons of Bourne and adapted them to her own ends. She harmonises the urgent fast-flash style with longer scenes of character development. Which brings us to Chastain, on whose angular physiognomy the film is hung, playing the nerdy fearless CIA operative who dedicates herself to the capture/assassination of the Al Qaida boss. Zero Dark Thirty is often referred to as a procedural, but in fact it’s a war movie, and as such is not particularly interested in the causes of Islamic radicalisation. Brilliant and nuanced though it is, in 20 years it’s probably going to look as gung-ho as John Wayne’s Green Berets.

Zero Dark Thirty – at Amazon



Beyond the Hills (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

In 2005 a young woman in a Moldavian monastery was tied to a cross and subjected to an exorcism. She died three days later of dehydration. Cristian Mungiu takes the bones of that case and makes a bleak drama about as far from a traditional “exorcist horror” as you could imagine. Composed of long static takes, with no incidental music, Beyond the Hills builds slowly towards its muted climax, offering as it goes a remarkable insight into the religious (ie medieval) mindset. If you were one of the people who raved over 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (and if not, why not?) – Mungiu’s blackly comic story of abortion in the “golden age” of Ceausescu – Beyond the Hills similarly offers an austere (if slightly overlong – so shoot me) peek into a world few of us will ever experience.

Beyond the Hills – at Amazon



Chasing Ice (Dogwoof, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

This documentary about James Balog and his Extreme Ice Project follows the photographer and former climate-change sceptic as he documents the disappearing glaciers of Greenland, Alaska, Iceland and, closer to home, Montana – largely by nailing cameras in place and letting their slo-mo timelapse testimony do the talking. It’s simultaneously a snapshot of an intrepid individual, a showcase of some rather astonishing photographs and a reminder that, in spite of the howling from sceptic corner, the climate is changing.

Chasing Ice – at Amazon



A Good Day to Die Hard (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

In recent weeks we’ve had Arnie and Sly in action hero mode. This week let’s say hi to Bruce Willis. But before we do let’s also remember that by the end of the reign of the 1980s action hero, the number of people actually going to cinemas was at an all time low. Just saying. Back to the film. It sends John McClane to Moscow where he is meant to be rescuing his wayward son from some criminal shenanigans or other, only to become immediately – and I mean while driving in from the airport – embroiled in some mental high-octane nonsense. The film then repeats the same three figures until it finally fades to black – the slaughter of human beings on an industrial scale, carmageddon-style mayhem, and touching father/son dialogue. Director John Moore could have made this work but he seems to have neither eye nor heart – neither the bloodshed, nor the pile-ups, nor the feelgood banter make any sort of impact. He’s further hobbled by a lame script regrettably low on wisecracks, which Willis himself must have read before he signed up – he’s an executive producer, after all. This Die Hard really is piss poor – and I liked the last one (unlike most). On this showing, of the recent dinosaur revivals, it’s Arnie in top spot, Sly at number two and Bruce coming in at a very very poor third.

A Good Day to Die Hard – at Amazon



Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (Soda, cert 15, DVD)

Morgan Spurlock directs but never appears in this documentary covering the San Diego comic convention, which started in 1970s as a gathering of maybe 500 dweebs and has become a global phenomenon. Spurlock follows the footsoldiers visiting the event, as well as key figures (such as Stan Lee, who is also a producer) but it’s his interviews with famous nerds such as Joss Whedon, Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Frank Miller and Matt Groening that give this affectionate portrait real heft. And, laugh as much as you like about people who dress up as Darth Vader, buy the action toy, then buy another one so they have an unopened one, these fantasy freaks seem a very happy bunch.

Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope – at Amazon



For Love’s Sake (Third Window, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Takashi Miike gave us Audition, which has got to be the most exquisitely gruesome horror movie of the last 20 years. He’s playing a different game here, though also taking things to the max with a high school musical pushed to the point of ridicule, and then pushed a bit more. It’s an adaptation of a manga and it’s about a ridiculously sulky Japanese guy in a black leather jacket who is fawned over by a succession of young attractive women. I’m not sure why. And when he’s not looking moody, our guy is either singing, is being sung at – in a succession of exuberant Grease-style songs – or is fighting. West Side Story? Vaguely. Though Miike’s intention is satire – he’s critiquing the conservative nature of Glee and other culturally related phenomena – but it’s wafer thin stuff.

For Love’s Sake – at Amazon



Diaz: Don’t Clean up this Blood (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The 2001 G8 summit in Genoa turned into a bloodbath after police stormed a school being used as a base for protesters and journalists. This dramatic reconstruction takes the form of a disaster movie – we meet the victims in tranquil times, get to know them, and then the trouble starts as swarms of belligerent cops descend with nightsticks a-flailing. It is an angry and partisan film, edited as if thrown together (it isn’t), and gruesomely effective.

Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood – at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2013