Movie review: Zero Dark Thirty



Zero Dark Thirty is a hell of a movie. The procedural about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is easily one of the best films of 2012. You'll need to make a bathroom stop before entering the theater - the production is 2 hours and 37 minutes, but director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who previously teamed up on The Hurt Locker, keep the proceedings moving at a quick pace.

I caught myself leaning forward and sitting on the edge of my seat repeatedly throughout the movie. Knowing the fate of bin Laden doesn't dissipate any energy because the story isn't about him, it's about the mission, embodied by one incredibly determined woman. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a fresh-out-of-school CIA agent assigned to the case.

A friend and colleague of mine disagrees with me about Maya. He believes the film's weak point is its lack of fully developed characters, including Chastain's Maya. I found Maya riveting - she is an individual who defines herself by her mission, one mission that begins on September 11, 2001 and concludes on May 2, 2011. Her focus never wavers, even when the attention of the nation, including - amazingly - the CIA, drifts away from the bin Laden search. At times it appears that her drive, her obsession with the case is the only thing keeping it going. Chastain does an excellent job making Maya a credible human being and not simply a representation of die-hard bin Laden-focused CIA agents.

Depending on who is doing the talking, Maya is either a composite of several individuals or a portrait of one deep-cover agent. Bigelow was drawn to the story when she heard a woman was a key figure in the CIA investigation. The story originally focused on an earlier point in the decade-long case, but was quickly refocused when President Obama appeared on TV to announce the death of bin Laden.

Controversy has dogged the production. There were accusations that the film was being designed as election year propaganda for the president (it isn't, and even if it had been, it wasn't released until after the election). The CIA was accused of violating national security by allowing the filmmakers access to classified information (dunno about that one). Currently, some are outraged over the movie's depiction of torture, including waterboarding, claiming it makes it look like torture was successfully used to secure vital information on the case.

I can't speak to that. I was so disturbed by the torture that I paid no attention to what the prisoner was saying. I understand that torture has been established as an unreliable tool for gathering information, since victims will say anything to make the pain stop. I reckon, however, that part of "saying anything" might include stating factual information. Understand, I am in no way trying to justify torture. I'm just thinking as I type. My suggestion is that you remind yourself that the film is a work of fiction based on fact, not a documentary.

What else to tell you? While Chastain is the central figure in this accounting of the bin Laden mission, there are many other respected actors in the film, including Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Harold Perineau (Lost), Joel Edgerton (Warrior), Sopranos star James Gandolfini and a fit and trim Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation). You also should know that the film's gripping action scenes are presented in a realistic fashion, with nary a hint of Michael Bay-style summer movie bombast. Zero Dark Thirty plays fair with its presentation of a fascinating investigation. At least it appears to play fair well enough to have convinced me.

Related Film

Zero Dark Thirty

Official Site:

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Writer: Mark Boal

Producer: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison, Colin Wilson, Greg Shapiro and Ted Schipper

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and Edgar Ramirez

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