The quietly devastating power of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty

2 hours and 37 minutes of incredible images rush past you and this is the experience of Kathryn Bigelow’s bravura new movie ZERO DARK THIRTY.

You feel that you’re in the presence of a gifted film-maker, aiming to present a story that you think you know but have never really seen. The movie is ZERO DARK THIRTY, the story is the decade-long hunt to capture Osama bin Laden and the gifted film-maker is director Kathryn Bigelow. It marks her second collaboration with writer Mark Boal (after their award-winning The Hurt Locker) and it’s a magnificent piece of work.

Jessica Chastain is Maya in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain is Maya

It’s not been without its controversy since it premiered last autumn in America. So let’s get that aspect dealt with right off, having seen an advance preview at the BFI in London (thanks Universal Pictures), I wonder whether any of the people attacking the film have actually seen it because their criticisms are wrong. Everyone has an agenda for writing something when it’s particularly sensationalist or headline-grabbing and so to answer their main comment levelled at the movie, that it promotes or endorses torture – no, it doesn’t. It’s shown in the film because unfortunately it was used and so quite rightly, Bigelow and Boal have made you face it. Watching these acts, placed in the opening 30 minutes of the movie, you’re ultimately left feeling ashamed that people resorted to such things but as Bigelow has said herself, it’s also there to hopefully prevent it from happening again.

So these scenes that begin this story – after a brief, chilling collection of 9/11 emergency calls from the Twin Towers against a simple black screen – introduce us to that torture through the eyes of Maya, a CIA operative played with incredible focus and subtlety by Jessica Chastain. She’s on the ground to see what information can be extracted from a captured al-Qaeda terrorist called Ammar (an impressive Reda Kateb) by her ruthlessly efficient colleague Dan (a superb Jason Clarke). Waterboarding, a dog collar, and confinement in a hideously small box are all used to see if Ammar has a link to bin Laden. Food, a cigarette, and sober questioning are also employed after a period of time and when they finally get a name, it shows how torture in its many forms can lead to nothing because the information’s a lie.

What follows constitutes the core of the movie, as we watch Maya doggedly follow leads with her fellow agents Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) and Jack (Harold Perrineau), visit CIA black sites to interrogate more suspects and deal with bureaucracy – initially in the shape of Kyle Chandler as her first station chief Joseph Bradley, then Mark Strong as her Washington boss George (in another superlative performance) right up to James Gandofini’s CIA director (a storming cameo) – all in pursuit of a solid piece of intel that can take her to her goal.

The Navy SEALS begin their raid in Zero Dark Thirty

The Navy SEALS begin their raid

Once unearthed, it leads to one of the best sequences in the film, a thrilling collection of scenes where she works with Edgar Ramirez’s Larry and his agents on the ground to track phone calls by the man they’ve been told is a courier for bin Laden. Hours of viewing material on a computer, coupled with days of watching and waiting finally culminate in the discovery of a possible endgame – a compound in Abbottabad.

Boal’s precise script drives everything along in this recreation of history with incredible realism and even when you hear the one or two gung-ho lines in it like “and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden”, you actually believe someone like Chastain’s Maya would have said that in this situation as it comes from a real gut-wrenching desire to get this man. The actors right across the board are exemplary (as I’m sure you’ve guessed from my mentions) but it’s Chastain that mesmerises with a performance which is at turns cool and others ferocious and which I really hope wins her this year’s ‘Best Actress’ Oscar.

Bigelow’s direction is once again measured and blisteringly effective but above all, she gives the film a beautiful quietness for the most part, with Maya’s endless searching for clues and information only punctuated at key moments with shocking flashes of violence. But then, once the courier is found and the house in Abbottabad is discovered, we’re treated to the last portion of the film where the Navy SEALS – headed by the excellent Joel Edgerton as squadron team leader Patrick and with a notable contribution from Chris Pratt as a dryly witty SEAL called Justin – storm the compound and Bigelow here delivers a bravura set piece shot in large part through night-vision, so just like The Hurt Locker, we’re really in these guys’ boots. It’s a breathless watch and when bin Laden is eventually killed, what Bigelow leaves us with afterward is the most powerful sense of what next?

When you are waiting longingly for a film to be released, having been captivated by its trailer, its story, its actors, its director – whatever has been the thing to hook you – and you finally see that film and it lives up to all you could have hoped it would be and more, that is a thrilling experience to have in a cinema and that is ZERO DARK THIRTY.