‘When was the last time you saw bin Laden?’

CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a key player in the US Central Intelligence Agency. She’s part of the team hunting for its top villain Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, following the 911 attacks. Her investigation is more than a career opportunity as she has to come to terms with not only the pressures of her job, a role that will require many, many years’ toil to establish the whereabouts of the elusive terrorist, but also the manner by which this task is to be achieved. As time passes terrorist attacks continue all over the world – in London, Pakistan and elsewhere. Maya has to determine that any information obtained is evaluated, interpreted and responded to appropriately. Colleagues who become friends are all involved in this and it’s a dangerous situation – any information she gleans could be valuable or deadly.

If Zero Dark Thirty was a fictional film it would be a tense drama with shocking revelations of torture and violence. Instead it emerges as an artistically constructed narrative based on a real story that takes its determined main character and the viewer through situations and moral discourses which they might not have considered before. Despite various criticisms for or against the film, this is one that presents the politics of the events to us but ultimately doesn’t sympathise with any position or viewpoint. Although there will be inevitable comparisons to Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winning The Hurt Locker (2008) in its depiction of US military operations outside of home territory (not to mention, at the time of writing, a nomination for a number of awards this time around) Zero Dark Thirty is notably the work of its director far beyond her previous film, even given its distinctive approach to its cinematography, composition and editing that reflects the situational and emotional aesthetic of the scenario. Indeed similar themes and visual styles can be seen in everything from K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) to the depiction of a central female role in a gender aggrandised masculine environment epitomised in Blue Steel (1989). Zero Dark Thirty depicts scenes that represent similar aesthetics of claustrophobic drama (particularly the scenes of incarceration and torture) and a documentary style that recalls The Hurt Locker (2008) as well as scenes of action that bring to mind Point Break (1991).

Zero Dark Thirty raises a huge number of issues but does not take sides nor does it resolve any of them. The issue of torture is a dominant theme. Maya wears a mask to disguise her appearance the first time she witnesses the interrogation of suspects (‘No shame if you want to watch from the monitor’) and is righteously appalled – initially. Her subsequent face-to-face encounters with victims of water torture as she toughens her approach to her task could be seen as condoning the use of such techniques (even as news clips of Obama famously declaring that the US does not engage in torture are shown) clearly has the potential to create political bias but ultimately the film does not do this, its focus is on the central character and her experience of events. As an audience we view both the perpetration of savage atrocities (from both sides) as well as basic humanity.

This is also a film that is predominantly centred (direction and editing not withstanding) on the script that shows events beyond the clear, easy, popularist scenario of ‘we’ve got some soldiers -let’s kill the bad guys’ but concentrates on Maya’s perspective along with the quandary between the goal and the means of obtaining it. It shows the participants and higher authorities engaging in political shenanigans and the meetings between executives which may be positive or may be preposterous. Some of the dialogue is so pitch perfect you sometimes wonder whether you are watching a militaristic, verging on sadistic, answer to The Thick of It (2005-), with lines such as ‘We don’t deal in certainty, we deal in probability’, or ‘How do you evaluate the risk of not doing something?’ but this is also the point. The film is tense and shows scenes of torture and terrorism that are appropriate to its subject but manages the balance precisely – violence depicted in graphic detail but never applauded or emotionalised.

Escape from the pros and cons, the awards and the abhors, Zero Dark Thirty is solid character cinema with strong acting, direction and editing that escapes beyond the preconceived ideals of political or action cinema.