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Zero Dark Thirty (4 stars)

A gripping, authentic-feeling account of the dark side of the war on terror from Kathryn Bigelow

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Zero Dark Thirty

If Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq-set bomb disposal unit drama The Hurt Locker caught everyone by surprise, the anticipation for her follow-up is tangible. An exacting procedural about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it’s been in development long before the al-Qaeda leader and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was caught and killed in a three-storey hideout in Pakistan in May 2011. Given this, there’s a tremendous urgency to Bigelow’s film, again written by her Hurt Locker scribe, former journalist Mark Boal.

Shot with a documentary-like rigour, what fascinates about Zero Dark Thirty – US military speak for 12.30am, the time the US Navy SEALs stormed bin Laden’s compound – is how it’s seen primarily through the eyes of one woman. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young CIA officer who is brought out to Pakistan in 2003 to focus solely on intelligence-gathering concerning the whereabouts and capture of their terrorist target.

Initially joining colleague Dan (Jason Clarke, excellent) at a covert black site to extract information from a detainee – she watches, shocked, as they subject him to psychological and physical tortures – it’s just the start of a long and complex journey for Maya, one that frequently hits dead-ends despite her tenacity. Resembling David Fincher’s Zodiac, in which a reporter obsessively tracked a phantom-like (but very real) serial killer, Bigelow never lets the trail go so cold that we lose interest.

Backed by able support – notably James Gandolfini as US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta – the superlative Chastain dominates, gradually going from a confident, fresh-faced rising star to a world-weary, life-sapped husk, drained by her pursuit in the shadows. You could easily read this as an account of Bigelow’s own rise in the male-dominated world of Hollywood. But, movie industry metaphors aside, Zero Dark Thirty is a gripping, authentic-feeling account of the dark side of the war on terror.

General release from Fri 25 Jan.

Zero Dark Thirty

  • 4 stars
  • 2012
  • US
  • 157 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Written by: Mark Boal
  • Cast: Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramírez, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jason Clarke
  • UK release: 25 January 2013

Action thriller from Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar winning director of The Hurt Locker. Zero Dark Thirty follows a team of US Navy Seals and CIA operatives in their decade long effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. A gripping, authentic-feeling account of the dark side of the war on terror.

Zero Dark Thirty - Teaser Trailer (HD)

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