Film Review – Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (MA)

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler

Four and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

How do you make a 157 minute procedural with an already known outcome feel like a zippy, 90 minute, sweat inducing, white knuckle thriller? Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal seem to have found the winning formula with Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicles the 10 year hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the wake of the devastating World Trade Centre attacks in 2001. Getting into the nitty-gritty of the historical search, this is much more than an extended episode of CSI. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty has more in common with David Fincher’s breathtaking Zodiac (2007), which offered every gruelling aspect into the hunt for the unidentified 1970s serial killer. Bigelow too, follows very closely almost every minute aspect of the investigation from the promising leads to the frustrating dead ends.

It is to Boal and Bigelow’s credit (as it was to Fincher’s when he took the more is better approach), that they have not glossed over the set backs, the human errors, the behind the scenes screw ups that took place because, contrary to what you may think, these hurdles that continue to pile up just help to twist the screws of suspense even tighter. This wouldn’t feel like a genuine investigation of a real life case without the precious details. To skip the frustrating set backs in order to fast forward to the happy ending would be a disservice to all those that worked so hard to bring justice to the evil leader. We end up sharing the helplessness and frustration that the characters display so frequently, resulting in a richer cinematic experience.


Opening with a handful of haunting recorded 911 calls from victims trapped in the Twin Towers on September 11, the scene is set for the hunt that will consume the following 140 minutes and the characters involved. CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) has spent her entire career since high school looking for the elusive leader of al-Qaeda from a desk in the United States. In light of the attacks on New York, Mya, who has plenty of experience but none in the field, is dropped into the centre of it at a Pakistan black site where her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures suspects for information on Osama Bin Laden. Sparking controversy, this 45-minutes of torture activity, with a rattled Maya hovering in the background waiting for the vital info to spill, has caused some to believe the film is pro-torture. But the means of extracting clues and leads in these sequences are anything but glorified. The horror is unsettling and the actions questionable. No one is encouraging the audience to cheer for more gore or torture devices to be wheeled out. The methods often lead to nowhere, an indication of its ineffectiveness.

Throughout the 10 years, Maya (understandably) goes through a gamut of emotions: enthusiasm, determination, loneliness, desperation, hopefulness, hopelessness, frustration, relief. It is a fitting showcase for Chastain’s vast talents to shine. Most actresses are only given the opportunity to express half these shades of emotions over several films. Chastain brings us a full character, one that is career minded (perhaps to a fault) and not interested in a personal life, but doesn’t lack personality and remains multi-layered. Bigelow’s handling of this woman in a man’s world is also fascinatingly understated. While Maya struggles to be recognised and heard amongst her male peers, she is able to, on many occasions, break through the glass ceiling – and yet no one is making a feminist point. Echoes of strong-willed but vulnerable Clarice Starling from The Silence Of The Lambs hang in the air, a similar procedural heroine that was treated like a woman and not a statement.

If the procedural elements aren’t exciting enough for you, there is the climactic sequence in which the team of Navy SEALs navigate bin Laden’s compound hideout in the dark. So rarely has silence been used so effectively and such film making skill been on display. The impressive sequence leads to the icing on the cake final moment we have with Maya once the dust settles. This isn’t about American flag waving and self-congratulatory back patting. Reinforcing this as a character study and an attempt to ask “was it all worth it?” as much as it is a recount of historical events, we are left with an exhausted, relieved yet strangely devastated Maya – a beautiful moment that concludes an insanely tense journey.

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