A film review by Craig J. Koban January 15, 2013

RANK: #8

RANK:  #1


2012, R, 157 mins.

Maya: Jessica Chastain / Dan: Jason Clarke / Patrick: Joel Edgerton / George: Mark Strong / Joseph Bradley: Kyle Chandler / Jessica: Jennifer Ehle / Justin: Chris Platt / Larry: Edgar Ramirez

Directed by Kathyrn Bigelow / Written by Mark Boal

ZERO DARK THIRTY – Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar winning THE HURT LOCKER – chronicles the real-life manhunt and killing of Osama bin Laden.  I thought that THE HURT LOCKER – which I placed proudly on my list of one the last decade’s best films – spoke to our times of war-torn and shell-shocked anxieties, but ZERO DARK THIRTY is a whole other ballgame altogether.   

It’s a searing dramatization of reality-based events that documents – in fastidious detail – the massively coordinated and monumentally complicated search that occurred - and was brought to successful fruition – for the man directly responsible for 9/11.  Beyond that, Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal (who also co-wrote THE HURT LOCKER) manage to not only have a keenly perceptive sense of all things Al-Qeada and American Intelligence related, but they also manage to spin an intoxicating character study of one woman’s unending quest to find and kill a mass murderer.  Much like ARGO – another fact-based account of an event that we all the outcome – ZERO DARK THIRTY creates tremendous interest in the story that builds up to its suspense-filled climax, during which – on that fateful day of May 2, 2011 - Navy SEAL Team Six ended bin Laden’s life once and for all.  Everyone knows the ending of this film.  Yet, it’s the lead-in towards it that’s key here, and in it Bigelow has certainly created one of the most superbly crafted, intellectually stimulating, morally complex films of 2012…or of any other year for that matter.   

The film’s conclusion shows bin Laden’s death in a dingy and drab fortified compound at “half past midnight” (or “zero dark thirty” in military lingo) in 2011, but its opening – set on September 11, 2001 - is brilliant in its stark simplicity for how it begins in total darkness.  The screen is blank and black and all we hear is the painful cries for help over telephone conversations between those trapped in the World Trade Center and emergency responders.  It grounds the film’s reality-based horror immeasurably without reducing itself to replaying the images of the planes crashing into the towers.  We don’t need regurgitated visuals of the tragic day in question when something as uncomplicated as a collection of random voices relaying the terror that they were experiencing are enough. 

Then comes the decade-long manhunt.  A CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain) has been set to Pakistan to assist her organization in Pakistan two years after 9/11, where she witnesses first hand the “black site” facilities where frustrated, but ruthlessly determined, agents like Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate Al-Qeada captured suspects.  The torture tactics he employs (more on that later) does yield a few tangible leads while grounding the initially frazzled Maya into the gravity – and sometimes depravity – that she will encounter in her quest to nab bin Laden.  Years pass with lead after lead only netting minimal results, which in turn causes Maya to become even more obsessed with finding her target, especially when the manhunt has lead to many lives of those close to her being lost.  Yet, for as brilliant as her theories are and for as passionate as she is in her mission, Maya unavoidably isolates herself from her staunchly pragmatic superiors back in Washington that don’t share her views.  Yet, one substantial lead pointing to an somewhat unassuming compound Abbottadad, Pakistan – and its oddly reclusive denizens – gives Maya a renewed compulsion in her mission, which she then must convince her CIA bosses and the White House to act upon. 



There is an awful lot of dialogue between Maya and everyone she works with during the long, but briskly paced 157-minute film.  Sometimes Al-Qaeda related names, dates, locations, etc. are dropped with such rapid-fire randomness that many in the audience may find themselves scratching their heads.  Yet, there’s no denying that Boal does the rather impossible of making this constant flow of information and misinformation fluidly coalesce together to fully and credibly entrench us in the story.  The hunt for bin Laden was not simple; it was arduous, convoluted, and beset with roadblocks, and the scripting makes us feel what the mission was like.  That, and we get an unmistakable taste for the limitless layers of CIA and government involvement and constant deception that the enemy used to avoid detection.  It’s information overkill, yes, but purposely done so: we should feel as overwhelmed as the agents in the film. 

Some have said that Bigelow’s film lacks definitive character development, which is not only true, but is also precisely the point.  The essence of the film is not to get to intimately know Maya.  We learn relatively little about her beyond her work, other than that she exists primarily within the tightly sealed bubble of her job.  Any free time she has still seems to be in breathless pursuit of Intel about bin Laden’s whereabouts.  We also learn next-to-nothing about the SEAL Team Six members or the higher ups above Maya.  All that matters is the mission and her insatiable quest to bring it to final closure.  Ironically, the lack of character definition almost makes for a compelling character study in the film.  Maya, in essence, becomes a powerful, yet vulnerable focal point of the film’s fascination and serves as a way in for viewers.  On top of the mission itself, ZERO DARK THIRTY almost becomes a film about a woman’s steadfast and unyielding zeal to find her prey. 

I can see how Bigelow is fascinated with the dynamic of a female character that’s trying to have a voice and get respect that works within in a male-dominated espionage world .  She’s found the ultimate muse in Jessica Chastain, an actress who time and time again with every new performance is making a claim to being one of the most empowered and indomitable movie actors around.  Maya’s a real multiple-threat.  Firstly, she’s naturally gorgeous, but underneath her porcelain, red haired beauty lays the quintessence of one of the most wholly self-assured, unwavering, and uncompromisingly strong female protagonists in a long while.  Chastain captures all of the inner strength, insecurities, and vulnerabilities of Maya and her 10-year protracted mission to find bin Laden.  She’s also an ultimate warrior that often can make verbal mincemeat of men with the most nonchalant of exclamations.  At one point during an intense meeting of the minds regarding the discovery of the bin Laden’s compound, she matter-of-factly declares, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place, sir.”  One of the sinful pleasures of the film is to see Chastain leave many a male colleague speechless, and she is perhaps the only actress around that could have conveyed Maya’s animalistic drives and resolve. 

Then there is the fateful nocturnal mission to raid the compound itself, during which Bigelow – a shrewd film tactician with action that usually out-mans other male directors in this field – does something compelling with it.  Instead of showcasing it with typical Hollywood polish, Bigelow and her DP, Greig Fraser, films the event with bravura hand-held camerawork – often under the veil of green night-vision colors – that gives us an extraordinary sense of intimacy and authenticity to the harrowing siege.  Even more intriguing is that there are no glory-shots of bin Laden’s headshot kill.  We in the audience – as well as the SEAL team shooter that capped him – are initially left unsure of whether the shadowy figure just killed was the notorious terrorist.  When it does happen, it occurs with lightning speed and finality.  Even the SEAL Team member credited with the kill seems initially stunned by what he has done. 

Controversy has dogged ZERO DARK THIRTY right from the get-go.  Allegations of the Obama administration unfairly giving Bigelow and her team classified information about the bin Laden mission have been levied, not to mention that the film has been accused of being pro-torture (the film opens with multiple brief scenes of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation  techniques).  Beyond that, there are still some that to this day testify that torture was never used against Al-Qaeda suspects.  Here’s the deal: ZERO DARK THIRTY is not a documentary, but rather a dramatic document of the real-life events that have transpired during the hunt for bin Laden.  Furthermore, ZERO DARK THIRTY is not torture porn, nor is it swept away in a patriotic fervor in sensationalizing the benefits of torture as a chief agent in getting results.  I don’t believe either that Bigelow thinks that torture explicitly and unalterably led to the capture of bin Laden.  The torturing of captives was just one very small piece of a much, much larger and denser puzzle to finding the man.   

More importantly, Bigelow’s film is far too thematically intricate for such trivializing debates.  Harsh critics are unable to see one glaring reality in the film: the actions of Maya, SEAL Team Six, and everyone else directly involved have placed a heavy burdensome weight on their consciences.  ZERO DARK THIRTY makes no overt apologies for torture, but it’s not admonishing it either.  It tells an ambitious, important and challenging 9/11 story of our nihilistic times with the utmost filmmaking skill and precision that will surely turn heads and prompt endless chatter.  More than anything, the film is not about petty flag-waving, hip-hip-hooray sermonizing about how great the success of the mission was.  A sense of overpowering confusion sweeps over many – more so in Maya - with the death of bin Laden in the film.  She has experienced the darkest underbelly of war and, in the end, she perhaps believes that her momentary victory on the war on terror has not fundamentally changed her nation for the better.   

The final shot is ambiguously haunting and speaks to this: Maya - all alone, friendless, tired, and physically and emotionally burnt out – sits in a cargo plane awaiting takeoff.  When asked where she wants to go she does not reply; she just sheepishly sits down and cries.  The film ends not on fist-pumping celebration or relief, but rather on a pathetic whimper.  I think that Maya – and us – are not sure as to whether everything that she engaged in during the course of the film was truly worth it or altered the battle on terrorism.   

In the end, ZERO DARK THIRTY is not really about the 'Is torture right or wrong?’ discussion.  It’s more compellingly about ‘Was it all justifiable in the end?’

  H O M E