Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

ZERO DARK THIRTY
Year Released: 2012
Version Reviewed: Theatrical Screening
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton (The Thing 2011)

Reviewed by: Justin Rumenapp
@The_Ill_Phantom

Zero Dark Thirty.  The "Osama Bin Laden Movie."  Is it too soon for a movie on this topic? Is it a pro-Obama, liberal Hollywood hit piece, released only to help defeat Mitt Romney in the 2012 US Elections? Is it a piece of pro-torture, conservative fear mongering? Did the filmmakers get access to classified information that they shouldn't have? Is it just The Hurt Locker 2: The Legend of OBL's Gold?  

Is it any good?

Short answer: Yes, Zero Dark Thirty is great.  Go see it.

Long answer: Zero Dark Thirty is a detailed and sometimes thrilling depiction of the hunt for OBL.  Zero Dark Thirty is set up as a procedural, and much of the film is spent depicting the logistics of the decade long manhunt, with a subtle character moments sprinkled throughout.  The film starts on 9/11/01 to the sounds of emergency calls and finishes just about where one might expect. 

The film's main character, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is introduced two years movie time (about 5 minutes real life time) after the 9/11 intro.  We are told that she had recruited fresh out of high-school, though she doesn't appear to age throughout the film's 8 year depiction (a real missed opportunity for an ace makeup team). Throughout the film she navigates the bureaucracy of the CIA, gets her hands dirty with various forms of torture, and even has a few close calls with terrorist attacks herself.  She starts out with a handful of collaborators, though they are slowly whittled down by various forms of attrition: Retirement, scandal and death.  Like all procedurals, much of the joy of the film comes from watching the details unfold, even if the audience knows the ending.

The debate on how accurate ZDT is and the efficacy of torture have been debated on Capitol Hill, so this reviewer won't bother trying to fife out the truth when the nation's best can't. For what it's worth, several CIA agents complain that they can't get good leads without "enhanced interrogation," though most detainees seem to give up the best information when the interrogators are playing "good cop."  As the torture scenes unfold, Zero Dark Thirty can elicit a dichotomy of emotions.  To witness various acts of terror and torture that really happened while snacking away on a bag of Skittles is an exercise in cognitive dissonance if there ever was one.  Perhaps with the film being painted as too-liberal, too-conservative, too-whatever, it is instead a litmus test for its audience members. If someone is disturbed by the US using torture, this movie will elicit that response.  If another audience member attends the film to see some Good-Ol'-Fashioned American Ass-Kicking™, they will likely cheer as the raid on Bin Laden's compound commences, which contains all of the traditional trappings of an exciting action film. The America you see - or want to see - will be waiting here.


Zero Dark Thirty is a fantastic film, though troubling in some of its implications.  I'm not 100% sure the film condones torture nor can I guarantee that it's 100% factually accurate.  The film has, however, sparked a debate in this country about torture, CIA raids and accountability.  In a climate where a celebrity coming down with flu gets reported on, this film at least deserves credit for kicking the hornets' nest. 

ZDT was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the team that created The Hurt Locker.

© 2013

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