Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Columbia Pictures
Runtime: 2 hours, 37 minutes
Rated: R (for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and
for language)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
Drama | History | Thriller

Zero Dark Thirty is military talk for “half past midnight.” As a movie, it is just as alluring as its title. It is the story of the acquisition and assassination of Osama bin Laden with efforts going as far back as 2003 when getting reliable information from detainees as to key al-Qeada players was pronouncedly an unproductive task.

When we meet “Dan” (Jason “Lawless” Clarke) at a U.S. outpost in Pakistan, he is putting the heat on a detainee (Reda Kateb) to weed through a long string of ground operatives in the terrorist network. Not long after, we meet “Maya” (Jessica “The Debt” Chastain) who has joined the effort to find the world’s most wanted man. When Dan doubts if she can handle the pressure, it is said of her: “Washington says she’s a killer.”

Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke
From 2003 to May 2, 2011 (when bin Laden was finally taken out), the movie tells the story of the highpoints, as well as the lowpoints and frustrations of the search. When a determined Maya begins to put her case together that Bin Laden is in fact not hiding out in some cave in the middle of nowhere, but is in a well-secured residence in the city of Abbottabad, the CIA wants more evidence before the president can be approached to order a strike.

Like this year’s ARGO, Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT) tells a factually-based story worth seeing on the big screen, but for one not already familiar with the details of the mission, perhaps not quite as much so. For them, a documentary may be a more effective way of getting the details of what went down. Our fiery redheaded lead nicely met the challenge of not only filling her role, but also of exuding a good amount of acting skill in a character and role that the most outspoken feminist could appreciate.

Unlike many fact-based films, ZDT doesn’t fall victim to the usual dull intersections at variance transition points where the story has to shift gears to keep its drama going while laboring to inform the audience in a quick history lesson. It is a seamless one and an emotionally rewarding one. My regret is that the writing at places allows for criticism from those who see the need to remind us again and again that torture doesn’t make extracting information an easy task. From the very start of the film, we get the impression that Jack Bauer can get his coat and leave―Clarke’s Dan will take over his work.

And then there is this jewel that sounds a lot unlike a meeting of CIA officials - and even less than a CTU briefing room exclamation in an episode of 24 - where Station Chief “Joseph Bradley” (Kyle “Friday Night Lights” Chandler) expresses his disappointment in the team’s efforts by saying: “Do your fucking jobs! Bring me people to kill!” If we didn’t know any better, we’d swear this was added to give liberals something to typecast loyal and patriotic Americans as hopeless lunatics and bloodlusting bigots.

What really doesn’t help things early on is the way Dan is portrayed as a sadist and we end up actually sympathizing with the captives under his watch. This could not have been intentional as we are expected to associate the detainees with those who caused 9/11. This doesn’t come to the forefront of our minds strongly enough, but the torture-porn does, drawing an unintended negative reaction from the audience to Dan (and later, Maya who we see following in his footsteps). The film has drawn great criticism from this, but it must be remembered that these bits - though perhaps excessively drawn out here - are simply a part of the reality of war.

And in addition to the movie further fueling the flames of what constitutes torture and whether or not the ends justify the means, I found it disappointing that we never get a clear shot of a dead bin Laden. And there is no attempt at showing how much of a big decision this was for the president. But neither of these bother our viewing experience.

As a movie based on true events, ZDT is a work that fights against its own dramatic arc, leaving us with a climax like a good cable-worthy documentary; that is to say, the film’s craft at building tension toward its conclusion is fought by the fact that we know what will happen, and so the climax cannot be as exhilarating as it otherwise would be. The final scene with Chastain, however, is deeply touching.

It takes some doing for a documentary or made-for-tv style film to make the jump to a big-screen-worthy presentation, but ZDT makes that jump rather easily with great camerawork and fine attention to detail. Director Kathryn Bigelow (who brought us The Hurt Locker) brings us ZDT, and although the same keen directing is seen in both films, the former, I think, has the edge on this one.