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Random thoughts about sound and vision.

Compound Interest: ZERO DARK THIRTY


Less than two years after being terminated with extreme prejudice, Osama Bin Laden returns. Kind of.

ZERO DARK THIRTY dramatises the decade-long hunt for the most wanted man on the planet. It's a story where the ending is known by everyone buying a ticket (and if they don't, their priorities in life need seriously adjusting) But there's more to ZD30 than documenting the last fifteen minutes of Bin Laden's life. The bigger picture is how American forces - both military and intelligence - stepped up their efforts post 9/11 against the invisible enemy of al Qaeda.

Understandably, it's September 11th 2001 where the film begins. A black screen, punctuated only by the white text of that fateful date. Then a collage of voices - panicked telephone calls to loved ones and emergency service switchboard operators - tumble forth from the surround speakers. It's a memorable opening, reinforcing what the flashpoint was in the stepping up of the hunt for Bin Laden.

We follow the chain of events through the eyes of CIA officer Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. Some have criticised this reduction of the CIA's efforts to focus on one person. As ZD30's canvas is huge - the story playing out across many different countries, with more than a hundred speaking parts - it wouldn't have worked as successfully as a drama with a multitude of lead players. In Mark Boal's lucid script, Maya is our guide, on point duty through the maze-within-a-jungle that was the tracking down of Bin Laden's location.

It's one of the CIA's methods that has attracted the most criticism and possibly ended the film's chances of Oscar glory. The torture of suspected al Qaeda members is shown explicitly - water boarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation. Whilst these scenes are not for the faint of heart, it's impossible to agree with criticisms that the film is justifying the use of these methods. Torture was a fundamental part of CIA information gathering in the early stages of the Bin Laden manhunt and to not show it would have been a gross distortion.

The climactic sequence of ZD30 - the SEAL Team Six raid on Bin Laden's Pakistan compound - is edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting stuff. Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to do action and she knows how to do it well. It's a bravura, yet completely disciplined piece of cinema.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is not the definitive account of how Osama Bin Laden was traced and ultimately despatched. Nor, do I think, it was meant to be. Where it does succeed, however, is as compelling viewing. An absorbing, adult view on modern warfare that makes you fully appreciate the magnitude of the task and the extraordinary way the mission was completed.