This rewatch has been a long time coming. Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies that is so dense with information that it’s difficult to penetrate and engage with, especially on first viewing. It’s a slow-burning procedural which spans a decade, teething with terminology-heavy dialogue the film rarely stops to clarify. I remember liking the film, and certain sequences sat on my gut as they unfolded, but the main thing I took away was Jessica Chastain’s performance. After bursting onto the mainstream in 2011 this leading role was her victory lap, cementing her as a mainstay of contemporary leading ladies. Chastain was the heart and soul of the film. Even physically, her porcelain skin and flame coloured hair often feel like the only vibrancy in an otherwise desaturated, cold and masculine world. Whenever I think of Zero Dark Thirty, I think of Chastain’s character, Maya, alone, driven and deep in thought. It’s a great performance, that much I knew, the rest of the film sort of blurred together. Ever since 2012 I’ve been meaning to return to it and bring it back into focus, free of all the expectations that come with any Academy Awards frontrunner.
There’s a lot to be said about the ambition here, as well as Bigelow’s evolution as a filmmaker over the years. This is every bit the filmmaker who made Blue Steeltwenty two years previous but also, aesthetically, a million miles apart. Everything here is so controlled and tightly wound, by the time it culminates in the extended raid on Bin Laden’s compound – which audaciously leaves Maya off-screen for an extended period of time, yet her presence never fades – the weight of this mission and the need to see it completed has become almost unbearable. It’s a masterclass sequence, utilising night vision and walkie-talkie distorted whispers to instil tension and unease with the audio/visual remove of an alien invasion.
As for the ambition, a film like this pretty much has to dictate its own structure. It unfolds at its own pace, free of traditional act structure, obsessed with minutiae and unafraid of narrative repetition in order to accurately depict the kind of setbacks and tedious nature of a subject this complex. There’s a constant dump of information which you naturally just tune out of at a certain point. As in a film like Primer, you don’t need to understand everything the characters are taking about as long as you trust the characters themselves understand it. I got into the rhythms this time around, let it suck me in and worked hard with the film to stay with it. It’s certainly a chore, and not a film I feel the need to revisit again for a long time, but it’s an audacious and difficult work with unwieldy reach and told with impressive control. Chastain is even better the second time around.
Watched on blu-ray.