Mark Reviews Movies

Zero Dark Thirty


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Édgar Ramírez, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language)

Running Time: 2:37

Release Date: 12/19/12 (limited); 1/11/13 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 18, 2012

For now, here is the defining film about whatever the so-called "War on Terror" is. Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden in intricate detail, from the confounding early years of the "enhanced interrogation" (read: "torture") of detainees at various CIA black sites—from which the scraps of information obtained may or may not even be accurate—to the uncertainty leading up to the raid itself, in which a table full of Intelligence personnel who have worked for almost 10 years on finding the man responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, can only say they are 60 percent certain that bin Laden is at the location they have uncovered. One character describes the latter debate—and the entirety of everything that has led up to it, really—correctly with a single vulgar phrase, the military shorthand for which is "Charlie Foxtrot."

Mark Boal's screenplay reveals the interior workings of the CIA in the pursuit of bin Laden with the objectivity and precision of a journalist; any emotional reaction to events and opinion of any of the techniques used in the process are entirely our own. Kathryn Bigelow's film is a cold, hard look at people trying to make the best of a messy situation and, at least during the first act of the film, sometimes making the waters even murkier. It does not judge any of the characters—most of whom are composites or outright fabrications for the sake of clarity and/or protection—or what they feel they have to do, but it does leave plenty of room and allow a lot of time for us to make judgments and consider all the questions the film—with great restraint, given the importance of events—refuses to answer.

This is a film that tells what appears to be a straightforward story with an obvious result but rejects the notion of a simple resolution, and when the long slog of information-gathering comes to a head, here is a film that ably conveys the weight of history. While the opening of the film respectfully but unequivocally replays the horrors of 9/11 (a black screen, over which a cacophony of terrified voices on radio dispatches play out in painful unison until only two voices remain—a woman trapped on an upper floor of one of the World Trade Center towers and a 911 operator trying to calm her while knowing she can do nothing), it does not forget the terror bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network inflicted throughout the world after that day (the shooting massacre in Khobar in 2004, the bombing of London public transportation services in 2005, the bombing of a hotel in Islamabad in 2008, etc.).

The point is clear: No matter what or how any of us feel about anything that happens in the course of the manhunt, history would only keep repeating itself. Something had to be done.

Immediately after the opening scene, though, we're left wondering if "something" meant "anything." Two years after the attacks, Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives at a CIA black site at an undisclosed location to observe fellow operative Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a reluctant detainee, who is something of a accountant for al-Qaeda. The questioning is tough; the physical actions even tougher. Dan waterboards the suspect, pulls down his pants and puts a dog collar around his neck, and eventually shoves him into a small, wooden box. The scenes only make up a relatively small section of the film, but they cast a long shadow that settles over everything that follows.

Through it all, the detainee insists he does not know the answers to their questions (In a last-ditch attempt to stop the interrogation, after being asked when an attack will perpetrated, he begins listing days of the week). "Everybody breaks," Dan tells him.  That may be true, but whether whatever credible information might have been gained could have been attained through other means is a question that should haunt us (The fact that real progress is made only after the cessation of these methods says something).

As the story progresses, public attitudes and political stances toward these methods do, as well. Boal's screenplay has little to no concern about the arguments, elections, and other decisions (The war in Iraq is mentioned only as a sticking point for the Intelligence community—in that the entire debacle over weapons of mass of destruction tainted their public and official perception) that led to this shift; the only important detail is that it has happened. As President Obama appears on television announcing that such techniques will no longer be allowed, Maya looks on with indifference; it means nothing to her and her fellow operatives but the need to adapt their tactics to the changing tides.

The characters undergo massive evolutions in the process. At first, Maya winces at the interrogation, but soon enough, she is hardened at sight of such things and far more confident when face-to-face with people who might have no qualms killing her if the tables were turned. With each ensuing attack, including ones that result in the deaths of her colleagues and one that puts her in immediate danger, she becomes more and more obsessed with a single line of investigation—the assumed name of a courier who may be alive and incredibly well-hidden or dead.

Chastain's performance is one of subtle alterations that amount to a fascinating examination of how that obsession affects Maya; she is stronger—more likely to call out people (even her superiors) for what she sees as their errors—but also more vulnerable—both in terms of external threats (People try to kill her twice) and internal strife. As hard as she tries to remain cold to events, it is impossible to become completely detached. Clarke's tough-as-nails operative makes a likewise transformation but in reverse. While Maya is the focus, Boal's screenplay and Bigelow's smart casting ensure that even the most ancillary characters have a memorable impact, most especially Jennifer Ehle's Jessica, another of Maya's colleagues who is skeptical of the intel but gradually warms to Maya's theory and Maya herself.

Bigelow's tone is clinical when tracing the path of the investigation, which spans years upon helpless and hopeless years and travels across the globe, but the film never loses sight of the human toll. After the members of SEAL Team Six make the long helicopter flight to a heavily secured compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where only Maya wholeheartedly believes bin Laden is hiding, the extended sequence that follows (either in real-time or as close to it as possible) solidifies the triumph of Bigelow's directorial achievement with the film. Zero Dark Thirty has an overwhelming sense of catharsis, as what began so long ago as a clear objective, morphed into a morass of moral uncertainty, and, nearly a decade later, became a priority again (It would seem accidentally, save for a select few willing "to move heaven and earth" to complete the mission) comes to a close.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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