Movie review: Zero Dark Thirty
The film about tracking Bin Laden excels as action but is at times morally confused
Posted: February 20, 2013
The gray zone. Morality and necessity are in conflict in this film about the search for Osama bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the decadelong search for Osama bin Laden, the avowed mastermind of the massacre that occurred in the United States Sept. 11, 2001. The title refers to the local time when the Navy Seals landed at bin Laden's compound to take him out.
The film is widely publicized as a work of incredible research, with the screenwriter having been intimately acquainted with all the minutiae of the operation from dozens of individuals in government and in the military. However, the film's representation of the facts is of course mostly inconsequential to our entertainment.
What is important, given the significance of the story, is for the film to balance historical narrative with fictional narrative, to keep us both entertained and informed.
A pure product of the time and place in which it was made, Zero Dark Thirty goes for subtlety in its link with 9/11, opening with a black screen accompanied by real phone calls made by those in hijacked planes and from inside the smoking World Trade Center towers on the day of the attack. However, for those 20 or 50 years from now, unfamiliar with the story, this connection with the manhunt that takes up the rest of the film will be rather tenuous.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
With Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler
In other words, the film tries to make our contemporary knowledge of events a connecting tissue, which is a little presumptuous, and even slightly reminiscent of the U.S. government's unintellectual and purely emotional push to go to war with Saddam Hussein.
Now, that is a problem that will only grow over time. But, for the moment, with this film's release coming less than two years after its culminating event, that is of little concern. The film is exhilarating, moving with precision from one link in the chain to the next, allowing us to witness some of the major points in the U.S. fight against al-Qaida since 2001.
Our guide through these events is a CIA special operative called Maya (Jessica Chastain), who witnesses the torture carried out on suspects during the George W. Bush years and despite her initial disgust eventually does the same, and, would you know it, the information she extracts is confirmed by others around the world (sans torture), and in the end, the trails lead to bin Laden's house.
We are supposed to admire Maya's obsessive search for the tall terrorist, and perhaps she is worthy of such admiration. It is difficult to presume the character is based on a real individual, but despite being a complete cipher (she has absolutely no life outside her work), we are confident in her ability to find her man.
The film's representation of torture has been heavily criticized abroad. Not only does director Kathryn Bigelow, by her inclusion of these torture scenes, give credibility to their role in getting information that would lead to bin Laden, but they are not presented as torture at all. While a film that does not pretend to reflect reality has the full right to present violence in a flippant light, Zero Dark Thirty has made it its mission to present the facts of how bin Laden was found, and by its refusal to treat the contentious issue of waterboarding with the seriousness it deserves, the film undermines its own credibility. Waterboarding ought to be shown as the torture it is.
Even Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat, a film set during the Algerian War of Independence, makes more of waterboarding by showing it in complete silence - an experiment with form that pays off because it is deafening. In contrast, the waterboarded detainees in Bigelow's film seem to suffer more when they are punched in the face. That is reckless and a shocking dereliction of duty in presenting a realistic portrayal of events.
There is some muddle toward the end, when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama appears on television saying he would cease waterboarding immediately upon his inauguration, which he did, but the film, by portraying these moments of torture as not being excruciating, and the perpetrators as anything better than morally repugnant, does not shoulder its responsibility.
The film itself is a vast improvement over Bigelow's tepid Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, whose lack of narrative posed a major problem for the Iraq War movie. However, there are silly little chapterheads throughout that seem more like notes for the editor and the director in their construction of the film. The viewer certainly could have done without them, because the flow of time and data is solid and poses no problem to our comprehension of events.
Zero Dark Thirty is remarkably well put together and filled with little-known faces that focus our attention on the story. A journey of 10 years is distilled into 150 minutes that brim with excitement, tension and humanity. Unfortunately, some of that time is devoted to inexcusably soft depictions of torture, but the rest of the film is strong and highly recommended.
André Crous can be reached at