'Zero Dark Thirty' (2012) Movie Review

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Condensing a ten-year manhunt down to 157 minutes is impossible, and yet, with Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have managed to come as close as possible without turning the story into a series of political talking points, no matter how hard some will try to do so.

Zero Dark Thirty
Grade: A

Zero Dark Thirty"Zero Dark Thirty" is a Columbia Pictures release, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and is rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language. The running time is .

The cast includes Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler, Nash Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau Jr., Fares Fares, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Callan Mulvey, Taylor Kinney and Alexander Karim.

Zero Dark Thirty is a cold, calculated, compelling and intensely satisfying procedural where the story and its central character are more than enough to keep you engaged without overwrought dramatic flourishes. The mere idea of opening the film with an extended torture scene, as we are first introduced to the story's central character, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is enough to let us know the stakes involved.

Maya stands in the background as her CIA colleague (Jason Clarke) interrogates an Arab prisoner using what have been referred to as "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- you are probably more familiar with terms such as sleep-deprivation and water-boarding.

These scenes are not easy to handle and a debate has already begun as to whether the film suggests these "enhanced interrogation techniques" resulted in the revelation of vital information that led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.

The conversation regarding torture is an important one, and one I would suggest is worth having and, if anything, it's a good thing the film has inspired such conversation. However, I've already offered my interpretation on the subject and will leave it at that. After all, Bigelow and Boal have done their very best to allow history (albeit a condensed version) to tell the story, rather than injecting their own opinion into the narrative and, seeing how this is a movie review, I'll get back to it.

Sometimes it's hard to decide whether your reaction to a performance is due to the character being portrayed or the performance turned in by the actor. Chastain strikes a perfect balance, allowing the character and situation to dictate the performance, rather than the other way around.

We are given very little background on Maya and the fact Bigelow is so strict in the telling of the story, you'd think there would be no avenue to get to know her. Yet, through subtle reactions and a growing determination, Maya's character comes into focus.

Maya finds herself in unfamiliar waters as her search for bin Laden has put her life, career and sanity in jeopardy. She's lost friends to this search and as the pieces begin to fall into place you find yourself reacting right alongside her, be it frustration, sadness, determination, anticipation or relief. The connection to her character is not through her background, but through the human condition and an understanding of what's at stake.

The fact Chastain is able to portray Maya in such a way that we can connect to a character in a situation as impossible as the one she faces says more than anything else I can come up with for what makes her contribution to the film so great.

Chastain is surrounded by equally strong performances such as small contributions from Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Mark Strong and Jennifer Ehle as well as brief appearances from Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as part of the SEAL team that comprises the film's final 40 minutes. But Jason Clarke as Maya's CIA colleague, Dan, stands out as a character worth examining.

To the point of not knowing much about Maya's background, it's interesting to look at Dan who we first see torturing a detainee, but about midway through the film he's wearing a white button-up and slacks and working out of Washington. We know whose side he's on, but given how little we know of Maya, by comparison the additional knowledge we have of Dan creates a conflicted understanding of him as the story plays on, and makes you wonder what other players in this story come from the same background and we just don't know it.

How much are you willing to overlook and forget what Dan has done? Do you agree with his tactics? Do you look at him any differently after you've seen him look in the face of a man -- beaten and bloodied -- and say, "If you lie to me, I hurt you," compared to the man you see later on pushing papers? Again, Bigelow doesn't build a background for these characters because she realizes the details along the way are more than enough to keep the mind reeling.

The attention to detail, the third-party approach to the narrative and the overall feeling that Bigelow has somehow managed to capture the essence of the hunt for bin Laden and the myriad of intelligence operatives necessary to accomplish the goal is staggering. While anyone that watches this should, at the very least, know, Zero Dark Thirty only scratches the surface of all that was involved in this mission, but to manage to keep an audience engaged for the entire running time involves a lot of confidence in what you're working with and an understanding this was a mission in which we were all invested.

The end result is a film in which you are going to be worn out once you get to the end. You're either going to be riding an emotional high as the film builds to its sobering conclusion or you're going to be beaten down by the extended investigation that leads to those final moments. Either way, I expect most audience members will walk out with a larger interest in all the hunt for Osama bin Laden involved -- the good, bad and deplorable -- and want to learn more as a film covering so much ground can only be so specific. For a dramatic retelling of one of the most highly publicized manhunts ever, that is truly saying something.


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  • Rhonda Adam

    One of my most anticipated films of the year, I cannot wait for this movie.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Alco48/ Alco48

      There has been so many question about the research into the movie. When you go see the movie treat it as fiction not as a true story.

  • Jack

    I wonder what Brad's favorite films of the year will be?
    Silver Linings
    End of Watch
    Zero Dark Thirty
    Moonrise Kingdom
    Magic Mike
    The Master

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/DaveS/ DaveS

      He gave The Perks of Being a Wallflower a great review as well.

    • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

      I think the thing to keep in mind is that Brad (and Laremy, too) tend to place films on their list that they both liked and also want to see/explore again, something with re-watch value, which personally is how I believe these types of lists should be made. My guess is that his list will look something like this (in no particular order):

      Silver Linings Playbook
      Django Unchained
      Zero Dark Thirty
      Magic Mike
      Moonrise Kingdom
      Perks of Being a Wallflower
      End of Watch
      The Sessions
      Killing Them Softly

      I could see The Master finding its way onto the list, and possibly Rust and Bone as well, in place of one of the other films mentioned. And I wouldn't rule out Argo or Looper either, but who knows. Amour got a high grade from Brad, but I think it may be too depressing and not re-watchable enough to find its way on his list.

      And thus ends Jordan trying to decipher what Brad's 2012 Top Ten List will look like. We shall find out next week!

      • Jack

        Silver Linings Playbook
        Django Unchained
        The Sessions
        End of Watch
        Magic Mike
        Zero Dark Thirty
        Perks of Being a Wallflower
        Moonrise Kingdom
        Killing Them Softly

        I remember those being the films he acclaimed the most! Can't wait for the yearly Rope awards! Great review.

  • Mark

    Brad do you think the academy will go for it as a best picture win or is it too clinical?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

    Really loved it. The detail oriented-direction, acting, cinematography, and overall ability to create intense scenes are what really drove it. Like I said with last year's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - if a movie that is 2.5+ hours long can keep me intrigued throughout, it's a damn good movie. In terms of criticism, I was a slightly disappointed with the direction the story chose for one of the characters, but that's just nitpicking. Overall, a great movie that is sure to make my top 10 of 2012. 8.5 / 10

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    Brad, would you say you liked Jessica Chastain's performance better than Jennifer Lawrence's in Silver Linings Playbook?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Two totally different performances, just give them both a watch and you'll see there isn't much room for comparison. Both are great in my mind, though Chastain has what I would call a harder role to pull off.

  • Dale

    The best review yet of this film.

    • Mark

      I agree. The best review of the performances too. Everyone else spends only one sentence on Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke's acting (leaving you to question if they are even important) while writing paragraphs on the over-analyzed torture scenes. Brad cuts through the bull and gives it to you straight.

  • Page

    I was waiting for this review and happily I am not disappointed. In total agreement with the poster above, the best, most digestible review of this film out there.

    Thank you.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AntonioA/ Antonio A

    I'm surprised by the overly positive reaction to this film. I thought it was good enough, but emotionally it was absolutely inert, all of the characters either a forced enigma or just small, almost throwable, pieces within the fabric of the story. The whole manhunt never feels particularly cinematic to me, and what works is the result of Bigelow's and her team's sheer technical resourcefulness. And, frankly, the whole torture thing doesn't feel worthy of as much coverage or analysis it's getting.

    I really hope Bigelow tackles something completely new next time, I think her voice is unique and potent, but I'm not sure if I want to keep watching her commit to this type of film.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Clearly I liked the film, and totally agree with you on the torture coverage, but I too hope Bigelow tackles something totally different for her next film.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

        I would have loved to see what she could have done with Savages.

      • m1

        I think she should direct the next Avengers movie.

      • Kimberley

        we will see that the White House will choose for her, Argo was made so maybe Condoleezza Rice biopic or so

      • Chris138

        I've heard rumblings that Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker could be part of a "War on Terror" trilogy that Bigelow and Boal would create. Otherwise I do agree that it would be more interesting to see her tackle something else.

  • Greg

    White House is happy with you, you are a nice guy ¡¡¡¡¡ well done GRADE A (White HOuse"

  • http://geraldalch.blogspot.com Gerald Alch

    Mr. Brevet: Your review is outstanding. You are an expert at your craft. Best wishes in the coming year.

  • Kimberley

    Obama said that Brad is his favorite critic

  • http://www.criterion.com/my_criterion/27913-criterion10 Criterion10

    Very excited to see this one, and if all goes as planned, I will be seeing it in the city this weekend.

    Brad, how would you say that it compares with The Hurt Locker? I actually didn't like THL, but for some reason, this film looks crucially different to me.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/HarryFuertes/ Harry Fuertes

    So excited to see this and Django. both could end up on my top 3 alongside Silver Linings.

  • William

    So Brad,
    I'm assuming this ends the bad luck streak of films that you either hated or were disappointed in (compared to expectations) that featured Mark Strong in it?

  • http://www.twitter.com/marlonwallace marlonwallace

    One issue that was on my mind that no one seems to talk about with regard to this movie. Maya makes no question about the fact that she tells the Navy Seal Team to kill Bin Laden, not take him into custody, not capture him, but kill him.

    Essentially, this was an assassination, which would be a violation of International Law, i.e. Geneva Conventions. There was some dispute about whether Bin Laden was reaching for a gun, but unlike the initial kill during the raid, Bigelow doesn't show a gun anywhere near Bin Laden's body.

    One of the Navy Seals doesn't hesitate when killing a woman. They do hesitate when it came to killing the children, but this was an operation that they knew wasn't going to return with prisoners. No one even pretended that this mission was anything other than an assassination. Yet, no one criticizes that about the movie.

    • Chris138

      The movie took a fairly cold and objective stance on the raid, in my opinion. Much like the military mindset itself, they are simply there to execute the task at hand, not to give moral commentary. As I watched the raid sequence I thought certain things were morally problematic, especially what you mentioned about the killing of the women, but I think it would have been more problematic if Bigelow left stuff like that out. In that case it would have been a black and white depiction of the U.S. being the kind, good guys who don't do any wrong going up against the evil Muslims hiding in the compound. As I said, I think that would have been a little more worrisome.

      • http://www.twitter.com/marlonwallace marlonwallace

        I have no problem with how Bigelow depicted that raid. My problem is with the critics and all the conversation by everyone else. Critics and even politicians have been all over the torture stuff, but no one talks about the legality or even the morality of the raid itself, which in my opinion is the bigger atrocity. We went in the middle of the night and assassinated someone, while they were basically in their bed sleeping.

        What's worse? Pouring water over a guy's head or shooting a guy in the head in his own bedroom with his wife and children all around? Why are people screaming that the former is somehow worse than the latter? Would anyone care if it were Osama Bin Laden himself who was being water-boarded?