PrintZero Dark Thirty came in under my radar; I’ve not really been keeping up with movie news other than the sci-fi blockbuster stuff about Star Trek and so on, so wasn’t even aware that this was being made. I only really started to pay attention when the controversy over the portrayal of torture by the CIA was being discussed in the press.

I really like Kathryn Bigelow; I have a great fondness for Near Dark (which is ripe for re-watching) and I enjoyed Hurt Locker. I enjoy the fact that she tackles her subjects in such a robust and direct way and doesn’t seem to give a hoot about whether her approach is “suitable” for a “woman” director (a phrase I absolutely loathe, by the way). And I was watching live when she got her Oscar, a brilliant achievement.

So I had quite high expectations for this film and I will say right away that I was hooked from the get-go and thought it was totally brilliant. Its two and a half hour running time had no flab in it at all. A complex story was given room to breathe and develop without being forced, and was gripping even though we all knew of course how it was going to turn out. In many ways it reminded me of All the President’s Men, one of my all time favourites so that is meant as a great compliment.

The film follows Maya, a CIA officer who works on the team trying to hunt down Osama bin Laden. We first see her being exposed to CIA interrogation techniques and despite the deep unpleasantness of what she sees she holds her ground and becomes hugely effective, finally pinpointing the information needed to identify the compound where OBL is hiding out.

Some of the scenes, especially the interrogation sessions, are a hard watch, and I was quite affected by the small section about the 7/7 bombings in London. One of my friends was on the Russell Square tube train that blew up (but was physically OK thank goodness) and I work not that far away from Tavistock Square and remember vividly being on lockdown for most of the day.

The last act of the film, which covers the raid on bin Laden’s compound was totally gripping and entirely believeable.

I liked Maya’s character very much. She was effective in a masculine world without losing her identity as a woman, and so many times we saw her in rooms full of men in suits having to justify the intel she is bringing them (one of these scenes includes a tiny wee cameo by John Barrowman which was mildly disconcerting), but she holds her own because she knows she is right. Inevitably I suppose I found myself comparing her to Carrie in Homeland; I gave up on that series because I just could not believe that someone with Carrie’s issues would get through CIA screening. Maya is just as driven and obsessed as Carrie and has her own baggage which develops throughout the film but the writers wisely left her without the tics and foibles they often give to such characters.

The cast is uniformly excellent. My admiration for Mark Strong contnues to grow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him bad in anything, and this is the first time that I’ve really seen Jason Clarke in a lengthy piece and he was fabulous. But the film belongs to Jessica Chastain, and I will be cheering her on for the Oscar on 24 February.

Dark, gripping and compelling, a must watch.

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