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A dramatised chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al- Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL Team 6 in May, 2011.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
There are few films that can summon up such global interest and confidently, credibly use grandiose descriptions, such as 'the greatest manhunt in history' - recent as it is. In fact, it is perhaps too recent for the filmmakers to see it from the clarifying distance of time, and in their haste, they garble some of the most interesting and informative elements.

Perhaps garbled is too strong a term, but compounded by poor dialogue reproduction (seemingly an epidemic in Hollywood) in the first 30 minutes or so, it is the word that comes to mind. This distracting flaw invades the way the film plays, aggravated by such heavy-handed use of CIA covert ops jargon as to make many exchanges between key characters meaningless.

But if we go with the flow and consider the big picture of the story, the film delivers its payload well enough, narrowed and honed down to its focus on the CIA's dedicated and relatively low-ranked operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain) whose determination to find and kill Osama bin Laden seems to have been the key factor in making it happen.

Chastain is excellent as the sometimes foulmouthed intelligence overseer whose loyalty and zeal are unquestionable, as are her patriotic motives. Matching her performance is Australian born Jason Clarke as Dan, the interrogating specialist who commands the first part of the film. All the rest are supports, and able ones, but the story hangs on these two as we move from one CIA 'black site' to another around the globe.

The film is made as an action thriller, a contempo espionage story whose factual elements have been drawn from personal accounts, we are told, as writer Mark Boal led the research. Sometimes the story telling loses its coherence but the thrust and the tension remain; indeed, it is the High Value Target who glues us to our seats, and knowing that it is Osama bin Laden relieves the filmmakers of some responsibility to generate their own stakes, their own clear path to his door.

With all that information available, I am surprised how little detail we can actually make out - details that are important as the crumbs that leave a vital trail. It's ambitious to cover a decade of such a complex manhunt, but the screenplay manages to gives us a sense of the ups and downs, the mistakes and good fortunes of those involved. It's a very different film to Seal Team Six (also reaching Australia in January 2013, on DVD) which concentrates on the raid - and shows the final assault with even more attention to detail.

The mission to kill bin Laden was wrapped in the Stars and Stripes as balm on wound of 9/11; this film shows the flag waving majestically in the breeze, thanks to the dedicated Americans who fight for the country's security every day.

Zero Dark Thirty (army talk for midnight, when the raid began) is a film that most Americans will no doubt embrace in a patriotic hug, although some will have misgivings about the use of torture on detainees. But the film's depiction of such torture doesn't condone it; it's a record of it, as part of the narrative jigsaw drawn from those who were involved.

Review by Louise Keller:
Utilising the same intense mis-en-scene approach used in her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's depiction of the hunt and capture of Osama bin Laden is an ambitious and eye-opening work, the scale of the topic giving weight to the narrative. Journalist Mark Boal, who won the Oscar for best original screenplay for The Hurt Locker has meticulously researched the facts with which to populate his screenplay, and in doing so, offers a unique insight into the workings of the CIA and its operatives. He also brings to the fore the keen and vital involvement of a CIA officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who, if we believe everything we see onscreen, is largely responsible for the capture of the world's most wanted man.

There is much to absorb and appreciate, including a sense of the cultures involved and the way life works in countries such as Pakistan and Kuwait. The way Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser captures extraordinary faces in the streets of Pakistan in particular, allows us a real sense of being there. We can almost smell the local streets and feel the searing heat prickling through the dust. But the faces and surroundings are only the backdrop for what is the main event, the road that leads to Osama bin Laden.

If I have a reservation about the film, it is the way Maya is depicted as a Hollywood heroine. I am not doubting her role in the events or the fact that she is clearly obsessed by her mission, I simply wonder whether the character is glorified to the point that it detracts from the situations and the lead up to the climactic events.

Chastain is a great talent and she easily assumes the role with tenacity and charisma. The scene when she identifies herself to James Gandolfini as 'That m-fer who found the house' is one that almost demands a cheer from the audience. From innocent protagonist to assertive heroine, Maya's journey is the one constant to which the audience can cling. In the film's tough opening scenes, when she witnesses a prisoner graphically being tortured by her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke), Maya is clearly mirroring the emotions that we feel. Very soon, it is she who is asking the questions.

The hand-held camera gives a sense of immediacy and much of the early part of the film flits to different parts of the globe, including London for the 2005 terrorist bus explosion and Islamabad for the Marriott Hotel bomb blast. A solid cast including Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle flesh out the specifics of the everyday occurrences that provide a springboard for the final mission in which Joel Edgerton plays a small role.

As Maya identifies the man she considers to be "the key to Bin Laden", the courier who uses a phone from his white SUV, driving around the streets of Peshawar, the tension starts to mount. Zero Dark Thirty is military jargon for 'the dark of the night', the tense moment shortly after midnight when the tight knit group of US Navy SEALs descends onto the compound fortress, wearing night goggles and ready for action. This is the scene that we have all been waiting for and by the time it arrives, it feels almost anticlimactic. The footage is grainy and while this may be how the events played out, it is often difficult to see exactly what is happening and never feels an entirely satisfying climactic end to the 10 year journey.

As a work that examines the events in the lead up to Osama bin Laden's capture and demise, Bigelow's film offers gravitas in its depiction - and rightly so, a monumental moment in the war against terrorism.

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(US, 2012)

CAST: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, John Schwab, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Nash Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Strong, J. J. Kandel, Simon Abkarian, Parker Sawyers, Mark Duplass

PRODUCER: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Megan Ellison

DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow

SCRIPT: Mark Boal


EDITOR: William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat


RUNNING TIME: 157 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 31, 2013

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