Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark ThirtyPhotobucketZero Dark Thirty is an effective blend of logic and emotion, fact and fiction in depicting the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is another drama concerning the military, likewise based on a script by Mark Boal. It starts with a black screen and real recordings of people taken from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Not that we need to rouse feeling for that unforgettable event, it is nevertheless an opening that seizes attention at once. Zero Dark Thirty is the subsequent search for the man behind that terrorist plot.

The thriller filters the saga through the efforts of a young CIA Officer named Maya. Jessica Chastain gives an inspiring performance and one through which the developments are filtered. In this document, we are hit with jargon and technical detail. When she’s first introduced, she appears to be a side character, an observer of Dan, her CIA mentor and Navy Seal, memorably played by Jason Clarke. In a movie where methods are emphasized over personalities, he’s one that stands out. He employs “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a detainee to extract information. As the story progresses we realize Maya is our main protagonist. Her unwavering drive to find the terrorist is her focus. The movie turns into the ultimate procedural, in which various clues must be investigated involving computer work, photographs and informants.

“Enhanced interrogation techniques” is a euphemism that includes torture, specifically waterboarding but also entails tactics such as sleep deprivation and humiliation. I wont debate on whether these methods were used because it’s a controversial question with different answers depending on who you ask.. However I will say they are merely presented without support or opposition. To concentrate solely on waterboarding or other coercive techniques that were used by the CIA is really to discount the many other leads and bits of intelligence that the CIA used in determining the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. That’s a very small part of this story.

The narrative brilliantly uses judiciously placed action to galvanize your outrage. One particularly intense scene involves CIA agent Jessica played by Jennifer Ehle and her discovery of a mole, a Jordanian doctor. The breakthrough develops into something that highlights the constant danger that these CIA operatives were under. Their big break becomes a galvanizing incident for the audience. It furthers the anger that 9/11 provoked. Granted there is a definite desire to stop further attacks, but there’s also an acknowledged element of revenge that the moment stirs within the viewer. It allows us to share in Maya’s defeats and increase our understanding of what drives her.

Naturally the struggle to find bin Laden was a 10 year objective that encompasses hundreds of people. Maya is important because she gives the fight a face with which to identify. When she finally feels she has a solid lead on bin Laden’s actual location, she urges the military to strike with an elite force. But the argument of whether they can follow that revelation is a measured discussion rooted in the possible uncertainty that could have dire repercussions if they’re wrong. She’s relatable because she doesn’t seem superhuman, although she has the resolute strength of her convictions. We completely understand her motivation in making these terrorist acts stop immediately. There’s a running gag where she writes the number of days elapsed since they’ve extracted this vital information and nothing has happened. Her frustration is understandable and so we are drawn to her. She’s human and likable.

History has already shown how this mission ends. Yet that doesn’t lesson the tension or excitement. It’s telling that despite the fact that we know this was a success, we are still fascinated by the way it unfolds. Through a blending of action sequences interspersed with data gathering and policy, we get a nuanced portrait. Zero dark thirty is a military designation for an unspecified time after midnight but before sunrise. Here it refers to the time in the dead of night that the raid of Navy SEALs invaded Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound.  The final third of this procedural culminates in the pulse pounding depiction of that raid on the building . It’s an incredibly satisfying ending to everything we’ve watched leading up to that point. This is a movie not a documentary. As with a subject that is shrouded in a high level of secrecy, one must approach the film with a healthy level of skepticism. CIA officials have admitted to conferring with film-makers on the project but insist that the finished picture is a dramatization as opposed to a historical record. And while Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t quite delve as deeply into personalities, the thriller’s information based structure is endlessly entertaining in presenting this fascinating story.


32 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. Good review Mark. One of the best of the year and definitely one of those flicks that will probably be talked about for awhile now. It’s just THAT good.


  2. Nice review Mark. I agree, this isn’t really a character based drama, although Chastain’s determination and personal sacrifices speak to her character some. Instead, its a gripping manhunt thriller… it’ll keep you in suspense regardless of knowing how it ends. Thats a neat trick right there!


    • One of the greatest procedural thrillers I’ve ever seen. The facts and the details that are uncovered and how they’re used to determine bin Laden’s whereabouts is what makes this so gripping.


  3. Wait a moment. So this was playing near you? Has it been playing near you since it was released? You know I’ve been waiting for this writeup haha! I really hope to see this the day it comes out to my area. Oh gosh that’s this Friday! YES! I’m so excited. Hope not overexcited. 😀


    • This opened in LA and NY on December 19th, but it didn’t start playing in my area until January 4th.

      It’s very good (I gave it 4 ½ stars obviously) but it’s a fact finding mission for 2/3rd of the movie so the tone is very pragmatic and detail oriented. It’s not an emotional movie.


    • No idea why it didn’t go wide right out of the gate. They did the same gradual release thing to Silver Linings Playbook and I think it hurt its box office.


  4. Glad to hear it lives up to the hype! I should be seeing this one soon, either this or next week. How does it compare to The Hurt Locker? Nice review.


    • When the Hurt Locker was originally released, there was less hype surrounding it. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about the film after I saw it. It was my top movie of 2009. Zero Dark Thirty is among the best of 2012, but I wouldn’t designate it as my favorite.


  5. Wow, I’m really pumped to see this now. Great job!


  6. Definitely one of my favorite movies of the year. The details and events that took place throughout the years, leading up to killing Osama, were very intense. I was always on the edge of my seat. Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke were very good in their roles. Final hour was nerve racking. 4 1/2 stars.


  7. Good review of an impressive movie…


  8. sanclementejedi Says:

    Looking forward to checking this out but tossing and turning over whether to see Gangster Squad instead. Sounds like I may have to do a cinema double down this weekend.


  9. Maya at one point does seem motivated by revenge as does most of the people in the film. There’s been a lot of fuss over the torture aspects, but what no one seems to talk about is the fact that the end of this film is basically the U.S. committing an assassination. Maya orders the Navy Seals to kill Bin Laden, not capture but kill him. The U.S. famously captured Saddam Hussein, so why not Bin Laden as well? I don’t know if you’ve seen the TV series ‘Homeland’ but there is a similar ending to the penultimate episode of the second season as to the ending in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ except ‘Homeland’ has a lot more character developments and soap opera-like drama.


    • Oh it’s definitely a film about revenge. It’s one of Maya’s key motivations for sure. Also your point regarding capture vs. assassination is an excellent observation. Point well taken.


  10. Nice review 😀 I’m seeing this soon.


  11. EXCELLENT review here Mark. I esp like the fact that you call out that there is no need to focus in on the torture elements as opposed to the events that took place. Agreed.

    Loved this statement here: “History has already shown how this mission ends. Yet that doesn’t lesson the tension or excitement.”

    That is part of the genius of this movie, its crew, and its cast. You nailed it.


    • Thanks for the kind words.

      Given the supposed controversy, I expected the torture to be quite graphic. It wasn’t. It was simply presented – neither to promote nor condemn it. A wise choice on the part of writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow.


  12. My review goes up today.


  13. I’m… I’m prepared for you to want to beat me mercilessly for this one, Mark.


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