Movie Review - Zero Dark Thirty

On May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama went on television and said Osama Bin Laden was dead. Bin Laden was killed in a military operation that President Obama ordered. It preceded the ten-year anniversary of September 11, the day that the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, led by Bin Laden, attacked the United States, resulting in the deaths of 3,000 people and the total destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Bin Laden has been in hiding since September 11, cleverly avoiding capture.

Zero Dark Thirty details the steps that the CIA took to find him, as well as the military operation that ultimately killed Bin Laden. The movie is essentially a CIA procedural that morphs into a very smart, spy movie and ends on a matter-of-fact action sequence, done almost in real-time of the real-life mission.

Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life and The Help) stars as Maya, the CIA agent who is assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. She makes clear that she didn't request this mission. She was assigned, which suggests a resistance on her part to be here, especially in light of the tactics utilized in the opening sequence, those tactics being torture or what was called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Whatever that resistance, it soon goes away, as she picks up on a lead that could reveal where Bin Laden is. For over five years, this lead continues to elude her, but she never gives it up, even when her boss Joseph Bradley, played by Emmy winner Kyle Chandler, screams at her and tells her to let it go. She instead obsesses and makes pursuing this lead her reason for breathing.

If pursuing this lead involves torture, she's on board. Despite the initial look on her face and a 60 Minutes clip with President Obama, the use of torture isn't a question or even much of a moral issue. Maya's resistance isn't even verbalized by the end. It's a wonder what it truly was.

Even though the torture is a lot of the same stuff in Taxi to the Dark Side, there was some part of me that thought what was depicted wasn't that bad. Blood isn't spilled as in torture scenes in films such as The Siege (1998) or Unthinkable (2010). In fact, the average viewer would probably have seen worse torture in FOX's 24 or Showtime's Homeland.

In fact, when it comes to female CIA agents, Claire Danes in Homeland is no doubt the more interesting character in as much as she is a fleshed out character with a back story and conflicting feelings. Maya isn't. She is a laser, and for the first half of the film I wasn't taken with her. It's only when she screams back at Joseph did I actually feel something for her.

Up until then, the movie is rather rote. Even though director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) depicts several real-life terrorist attacks, I was still somewhat bored by the first hour or so of the film. Bigelow re-creates bombing after bombing and it got repetitive without having any real impact. Bigelow would put titles on the screen of the dates of these attacks, which signaled to the audience that another bomb was about to go off. I'm not sure if this was intended like Hitchcock's way of building suspense by tipping off the audience to the pending explosion, but I felt often that it did the opposite. When a character whom Maya befriends dies in a subsequent bombing, I didn't feel that loss.

What makes up for it though is the fantastic second half of this film, which in my mind starts after Maya screams at Joseph. We get incredible performances from a great cast, including Mark Strong, Jason Clarke, Edgar Ramirez, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton and Taylor Kinney.

We also get an amazing, gripping, immersive and intense, 30-minute or so action sequence that is superbly done. It's chilling, mainly because it's so matter-of-fact. It's not as exciting or action-filled as any of the real-life Navy Seal scenarios in Act of Valor (2012), but somehow the actors and Bigelow's style make it a thousand times more powerful and memorable.

I initially wasn't taken with Bigelow's camerawork, led by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser, but I eventually overlooked all the shaky cam shots. What helped was the great editing work of Oscar-nominee William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor. I don't know if the haunting collection of audio from 911 calls on September 11 goes to Goldenberg and Tichenor or Oscar-winning sound editor Paul N.J. Ottoson (The Hurt Locker) but kudos!

I'll close out with a couple of thoughts. Back on May 2, 2011, I wrote a blog about the announcement of Osama Bin Laden being dead. My blog was about my conflicted feelings over what I saw on television that night. Both CNN and FOX News had a live camera outside the White House, which captured people celebrating his death.

At first, it bothered me that people would celebrate what was essentially a murder, even if it were the murder of the terrorist mastermind behind September 11. Given the argument for the increased drone strikes in Pakistan, the United States or President Obama won't have to worry with being charged with violating international law or human-rights.

But, the question remains. The U.S., for example, captured Saddam Hussein and brought him back alive, and accounts confirm that Hussein was fully armed, but, according to this film, no attempt was made to bring Bin Laden back alive. Maya's order to the Navy Seals is unequivocal. She tells them specifically to kill Bin Laden, not to capture but to kill him. All is fair in love and war, but why kill Bin Laden on the ground and not Hussein?

I liked Maya's confidence. Chastain exudes the confidence that's enough for the so-called canaries who have to fly into the coal mine, and it was certainly enough for me. I'm not sure though if this movie did much to assuage my concerns of America's motives or modus operandi when it comes to the war on terror.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong violence including brutal images and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 37 mins.


  1. What I admire so much about Zero Dark Thirty is it's guts so show the events leading up to this very touchy subject. Guts, that you rarely see in movies nowadays. Good review Marlon. Haven't heard from you in awhile, don't be a stranger and pop-by every once and awhile my dear friend!


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