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Review: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Is A Dense & Intense National Security Procedural

Reviews
by Rodrigo Perez
January 10, 2013 4:30 PM
50 Comments
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Spanning two presidential administrations and approximately eight years, “Zero Dark Thirty” is as dispassionate, clinical and grindingly thorough as an obsessed tactical procedural can get. But at two and a half hours, the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is also as gripping and riveting as any film in this fact-finding methodology-based genre.

From director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team that brought you “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” -- military jargon for 30 minutes after midnight -- is as relentless and committed to its convictions and presentation as its main protagonist Maya (played by Jessica Chastain with firebrand passion), a CIA intelligence agent unremittingly driven by her pursuit of Bin Laden. The film slowly coils with an absorbing intensity. For better or worse, Bigelow extracts the details with myopic, laser precision until her characters find clues, inklings and suppositions to inform their argument concerning the whereabouts of the “world’s most dangerous man.”

Often detached, the picture opens up with a black-on-white title card that reads that the film is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” From there, a black screen chillingly collects an aural montage of phone calls, pleas and desperate voices from the events of September 11, 2001, that goes on for what seems like an excruciating eternity. Beginning in 2003, Chastain’s Maya finds herself working alongside other intelligence CIA officers in Pakistan played by Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle and Harold Perrineau (all of whom arguably have the most substantial parts in the film other than the lead).

Torture, waterboarding and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse is the norm of the day, and the picture essentially begins with Clarke’s senior agent character brutally interrogating and torturing a prisoner. It’s matter-of-fact, visceral stuff, like most of the action set pieces in the film. Their job is to break prisoners, and this ugly, naked, dirty job is done with unyielding and punishing exactitude.

As Clarke, Ehle and Chastain's team grates prisoners for intel, they scrimp and scrape for particulars, but mostly come up with dead-end intimations that they cannot connect to anything substantial. 2004 sees an atrocious Saudi Arabia attack, 2005 depicts the London bombings that the Taliban took credit for, and the years slog on as these agents pore over a slough of minutiae. The job takes its toll, too. Maya seems spiritually crushed while obstinately hammering over interrogation sessions, and in need of a clear head, Clarke’s character eventually bows out, taking a desk job in Virginia, knowing he’s maxed out his mental limit in the Middle East.

Essentially the needle in the haystack of all haystacks, Maya eventually comes upon a thread that she zeroes in on: a courier, who could be Osama Bin Laden’s personal messenger. The thread goes dark over the years, and it’s even one her station chief (played by Kyle Chandler) attempts to get her to drop, but Maya’s fixation with this courier Abu Ahmed – said to be UBL’s "favorite courier and right-hand man,” only grows in fervor when her closest Pakistan peer is killed in a double-crossing bomb attack. Bureaucracy is, of course, also a factor. Her bosses' objectives are to protect the homeland – Osama is thought to be a relic that doesn’t matter. But Maya’s convinced that Bin Laden is crucial to decimating the Al Qaeda infrastructure, and she risks everything to prove she’s right.

While grueling in its presentation of the connect-the-dots facts, “Zero Dark Thirty” is still more a transfixing drama, flecked with powerhouse, engaging action beats, than it is a slog. Largely unadorned -- for example Alexandre Desplat’s score is mostly muted throughout until the final capture sequence – apart from innovative low-light photography and clipped, tension-building editing, “Zero Dark Thirty” is told in a straightforward but fascinating manner.

“Zero Dark Thirty” may be polarizing for some, and will surely test casual moviegoers – hence the move to push the film into January wide release so the critical buzz has time to build. It’s dense, crushingly systematic and disciplined, with a payoff that everyone already knows about. But its commitment to its vision is gripping and engrossing (though some might reductively describe it as Nancy Drew on the hunt for the Boogey Man in the Middle East if they felt like being trite).

Co-starring Mark Strong and James Gandolfini as CIA bigwigs, and Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Taylor Kinney, Scott Adkins, Frank Grillo and more as members of the Team 6 navy seals (Mark Duplass and Edgar Ramirez also co-star in this expansive cast), Bigelow’s nerve-racking drama is an ensemble picture, but certainly centers around its single-minded protagonist played by Chastain.

And while it's not as user-friendly as “Les Misérables” or “Life of Pi” – both more emotionally engaging pictures -- it cannot be denied that Bigelow and Boal have scored again. While not as taut and lean as the more action-based “The Hurt Locker,” ‘ZDT’ is an electric, sprawling and ambitious effort that’s easy to become absorbed by, and a picture that should impress those keen on the director’s intelligent, composed and determined brand of filmmaking. [B+]

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50 Comments

  • RealityBites | January 12, 2013 1:22 PMReply

    CIA- Criminals In Authority... O-Dumb-Thirty is nothing but a propaganda film made by morons for even bigger morons. Nothing but a badly made, badly acted Nazi film.

  • ipfreely | March 2, 2013 9:02 PM

    Amen

    Thank God not people are Sheepeople

  • Alan Smithee | January 12, 2013 2:52 PM

    The sad thing is, you probably haven't even seen the film. You just read a bunch of columns from people who can actually put together a coherent thought (unlike yourself) and decided to condemn the movie based on nothing more than feigned outrage. Honestly, RealityBites, I'm telling you this for your own good: Be original. Stop talking like a moron ("O-Dumb-Thirty"? What the fuck is that?). And please, for the love of God, actually see a movie before spouting off about it.

  • pol | January 10, 2013 7:09 PMReply

    It's also a big fucking lie. Nice to see glossing over torture apologia. How unexpected.

    ZDT is bullshit, told by the biggest bullshitters out there: the CIA and their all too happy dupes.

    The real CIA is a good friend to terrorists, even right now in Syria. Oliver Stone's latest Untold History sets some historical context for where we are now. Watch that instead of this jingoistic imperial gibberish. Boal and Bigelow are exploiters and Good Germans, reaping the rewards of an ignorant, flag-waving nation of wannabe bullies. So called "critics" are supposed to be a little sharper, but that's not in too much evidence. http://politicalfilm.wordpress.com/

  • Eddie | January 12, 2013 2:47 PM

    @REALITYBITES In all seriousness, you sound like an inarticulate moron who just cribs the thoughts and ideas of people far more informed than yourself. Have you even seen the movie, or are you just like the countless others who have prematurely condemned it? It's just really sad that people like you are dictating the level of debate in this country these days.

  • REALITYBITESBITES | January 12, 2013 2:40 PM

    @REALITYBITES "Kooky-Aid"? What are you, 12? Seriously, though, keep fighting that revolution on the computer. It'll be worth it one of these days.

  • RealityBites | January 12, 2013 1:24 PM

    @TED how much Kooky-Aid do you drink a day? A tanker ful? Your poor braincell isn't capable of even grasping truth let alone recognizing it. You are nothing but a programmed dumb lemming doing just what the puppetmasters want you too. What's it like being a empty headed stupid puppet boy?

  • Ted | January 11, 2013 6:02 PM

    Oliver Stone? Are you fucking kidding me? Yeah, he's a real beacon of truth. Give me a break. You aren't really that stupid, are you?

    And I agree with the other commenters: Please just stop pimping your awful blog. Nobody on Earth finds it interesting or insightful.

  • WOL | January 10, 2013 9:33 PM

    Nobody cares about your shitty blog.

  • Alan B | January 10, 2013 8:32 PM

    You haven't seen the film. And no one cares about the blog of a guy that hasn't seen the films he bitches about.

  • jfc | January 10, 2013 7:06 PMReply

    It is no coincidence that this movie opened on Jan 11. That is the 11 year anniversary of the opening of GITMO (to the day).

    This film is dangerous propaganda with no other purpose but to entertain people into forgetting that Torture is A CRIME. Now we've managed to make torture entertainment.

    Kathrine Bigelow has become America's very own Leni Riefenstah.

  • KFC | January 10, 2013 9:35 PM

    Wow, a comparison to Leni Riefenstahl. How original! Seriously, have you even seen the goddamn movie? Because if you had, you'd understand that it in no way endorses torture, you fucking simpleton.

    So either admit you're wrong, or go back to jerking off to old Glenn Greenwald columns.

  • Predictable | January 10, 2013 6:19 AMReply

    For me, the movie lost credibility the moment I saw its title. In military jargon, it's not "zero dark thirty," it's "o dark thirty" (pronounced "oh dark thirty"). Oh, and the trailer's catchphrase is pure genius as well: "The greatest manhunt in history."

    Of course this isn't another ignorant American propaganda film under the guise of an intelligent, unbiased commentary on US politics and foreign policy. Now what ever would give anyone that idea?

  • Lou | January 12, 2013 2:44 PM

    @REALITYBITES Do you get all your talking points from Glenn Greenwald? Seriously, you're no better than the folks who watch Fox News and take what they hear from O'Reilly and Hannity as gospel. Learn to think for yourself, you fucking sheep.

  • RealityBites | January 12, 2013 1:28 PM

    The drooling morons couldn't even get the title correct, and it goes way down hill from there.

    Just another nazi movie for psychopath lovers.

  • Gabriel | January 12, 2013 12:18 AM

    Bigelow was on Letterman and explained that "Oh dark thirty" wouldn't look good on a movie poster or it wouldn't be a good movie title. That's why they went with Zero Dark Thirty.

  • Zak | November 28, 2012 10:30 PMReply

    Solid review. Can't wait to see.

  • RealityBites | January 12, 2013 1:29 PM

    Why????? Do you want to support psychopaths and liars?

  • bluebellreach | November 28, 2012 4:01 PMReply

    A cursory glance at the comments on this thread is exactly why I'm not interested in a movie about 9-11 WHATSOEVER.

  • StoJa | November 27, 2012 12:58 AMReply

    Not to nitpik too much but they're not called "Team 6 of the navy seals." It's SEAL Team Six. SEAL is an acronym and "Team Six" is their unit. It's like saying "the red socks of the city of Boston" instead Boston Red Sox.

  • Markunator | November 27, 2012 9:46 AM

    Actually, they're not called SEAL Team Six anymore, they're called the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group - or DEVGRU for short.

  • hank | November 26, 2012 7:13 PMReply

    wondering how the movie ends? did they ever get the guy? I enjoy anything about Pro USA.

  • gerard kennelly | November 26, 2012 5:20 PMReply

    i want Mary Elizabeth Winstead to win best actress for SMASHED

    the reason they killed bin ladin was... if he was put on trial
    like the nazi in nuremburg
    there would be 2 sides to the story

  • Sarah | November 27, 2012 10:21 PM

    You're breathtakingly inarticulate, Jimmy.

  • Jimmy | November 26, 2012 9:18 PM

    You're breathtakingly stupid, Gerard.

  • John | November 26, 2012 2:09 AMReply

    Using words like neoliberal but clearly having no idea what they mean = no credibility whatsoever.

  • Mohammed | November 26, 2012 1:57 AMReply

    The reason reviewers don't mention Chastains character performance is because its rather shallow- as much as was said about Afflecks character in Argo. But since its a female character in an action-film and there are so few of them its left unmentioned. In the review of Argo the reviewers could not wait to scatch the movie for it, but not here.

  • Strange Business | November 26, 2012 12:54 AMReply

    This is the 4th major review I've read today that is long, detailed but with barely a sentence about the main character's [Jessica Chastain] performance. Never seen that before. Are reviewers worried they might hurt her feelings or something?

  • Read Business | November 26, 2012 11:03 AM

    "played by Jessica Chastain with firebrand passion"

  • Vino | November 26, 2012 12:34 AMReply

    How neat & tidy that the smartest staffer at the CIA just happened to be a young attractive woman. Jeez, she could be the heroine of a movie ! "Yah, b.o. for sure." You got game?

  • Ninja | November 25, 2012 11:33 PMReply

    Yeah, but did they capture him?

  • feigel | November 25, 2012 10:23 PMReply

    sounds kinda awesome.

  • Elle | November 25, 2012 10:13 PMReply

    "disciplined with a payoff" - The "payoff" being the unlawful assassination of another human being? Some payoff.... With films like The Avengers, The Expendables 2, Argo, Lincoln, Red Dawn and Zero Dark Thirty, 2012 will go down as being one of the most jingoistic years in cinema history.

  • Richard K. | November 29, 2012 1:29 PM

    "your argument for Homeland's racism is pretty strained and completely subjective" - Unless you can offer a well-thought-out counter argument to the points I made about the show's racism, my argument stands. "if you're looking for racism you'll find it, and all we'll be left with are ridiculously PC non characters." - Absolutely not true. The show could easily be a commentary on racist characters without actually becoming racist itself. Look at The Sopranos. The show is filled with racist and misogynistic characters but it's quite clear that the views held by the characters do not reflect the views of the writers. With Homeland (and considering the fact that it was created by the same people who created 24), it's abundantly clear that the show's creators are racists. "but it's a complicated slow burner that blew up at the finale and has continued to since" - I didn't think there was anything thrilling about the finale, as I could see the plot-twists coming a mile away and I'm shocked that more people didn't. "you hated at Homeland because of it's right wing racism but turn out to be willing to accept a right wing show as long as it's suspenseful, in truth that kind of instant entertainment will never give much in the way of complexity, racial or otherwise" - My point was that beyond the racism, it's not even particularly well-made or suspenseful. Which goes to show that I could be more than willing to put political bias aside if a show is very well-produced and doesn't shove it's agenda in your face. My strong dislike of Homeland is a testament to how poorly-made it is.

  • AE | November 29, 2012 12:51 PM

    @ Richard K you're a tricky one to respond to because your argument for Homeland's racism is pretty strained and completely subjective. The reason I respond at all is a concern that your kind of argument shuts down any authentic exploration of these issues at all, if you're looking for racism you'll find it, and all we'll be left with are ridiculously PC non characters. I agree with you though season one HL lacked suspense, but it's a complicated slow burner that blew up at the finale and has continued to since, but doesn't that shut down this whole argument, you hated at Homeland because of it's right wing racism but turn out to be willing to accept a right wing show as long as it's suspenseful, in truth that kind of instant entertainment will never give much in the way of complexity, racial or otherwise.

  • Richard K. | November 27, 2012 10:18 PM

    I disagree. The US attack was brushed aside as a simple "accident" which was looked upon as collateral damage. In fact, the attitude was almost angry frustration that "these people are too stupid to understand that it was just a mistake" and "bad things happen in war" blah blah blah. It was just a bullshit explanation for an atrocity and a war crime. The assumption is that while innocents are killed along the way, the US military's presence is ultimately justifiable. If you'd like more evidence of the show's racism, look no further than a "cliff hanger" that's thrown in at the end of one of the earlier episodes in which we see Brody praying to Allah. The fact that this is used as a cliff hanging at all is blatant racism. It suggests that if he's praying to Allah, he must be a terrorist. But forget the political agenda and racism, the show is simply bland and lacks any real suspense. Take 24 for instance. I don't agree with that show's political agenda at all, but I've watched all but one season of the show because of how suspenseful and well-edited it is. Homeland has none of that. Oh, and I've watched the entire first season of Homeland btw.

  • AE | November 27, 2012 11:56 AM

    Re Homeland I disagree and consider myself more sensitive than most on the vilification of 'brown people'. The entire premise for the terrorsim threat posed in the show is the hushed up US attack that killed innocent women and children in Pakistan, thereby making the motive of the terrorists entirely the same as the motive of the CIA agents, none of whom could be called heroic, more seriously fucked up, and that's before we get to the Vice President. Sorry Richard K you're wrong, wrong, wrong, do you watch the show I can't recognise it at all from your description? Do you mean 24?

  • Richard K. | November 26, 2012 2:45 PM

    @AE Yes, Homeland, another form of "entrainment" that further demonizes and vilifies brown people and reinforces the notion that "America is under attack from the evil Muslims" while making no attempt to ask WHY America is one of the most hated countries in the world (oh, wait, I forgot... it's because "they envy our way of life"... I mean, I guess that explanation works... if you're five years old). Yeah, thank goodness for that show.....

  • AE | November 26, 2012 11:50 AM

    Shame this debate ends on a note of shit flinging bullshit cause there's a point, and I'd add Skyfall and TDKR to the list as well, with Daniel Craig making a corny well timed visit to Helmand to rally the troops. I guess there's a lot of insecurity out there and a sense of a crumbling corrupt national idealism hence the need to big us up at the movies. Saying that I have hopes this film and Bigelow will be smarter than that, and if not what the hell there's always Homeland, now there's a drama that knows how to deal with muddy waters.

  • Wash | November 26, 2012 8:25 AM

    Considering your list Elle, sign me up! Jingoism results in awesome movies, apparently.

  • Alan | November 26, 2012 1:41 AM

    "It's a little hypocritical for Americans to condemn a mass murderer, no?" So, an American CANNOT criticize a killer? Like ever? It would be "hypocritical" to do so? Rightttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt.

  • Elle | November 26, 2012 12:41 AM

    @James: It's a little hypocritical for Americans to condemn a mass murderer, no?

  • George | November 26, 2012 12:20 AM

    Elle, I have the feeling that any film that shows America in a positive light is "jingoistic" to you.

  • James | November 25, 2012 11:59 PM

    Errr...that 'human being' wasn't some random sucker in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a brutal mass murderer. The only people on earth who shed a tear over his 'murder' are western Neo-Liberals. If only he'd targeted Africans or Palestinians or Tibetans; you know, those noble savages whose lives are so pure and precious. Instead, he targeted white people - usually Christian - who to the Neo-Liberal are strangely disposable.

  • Elle | November 25, 2012 10:19 PM

    Go back to Rush Limbaugh, tea bagger.

  • Lenny | November 25, 2012 10:16 PM

    Go back to Mother Jones, hippie.

  • Oogle monster | November 25, 2012 9:47 PMReply

    Chastain can snag a best actress nod and possibly win? Yay or nay? Good god, this year is SO MUCH better than last year in terms of film quality.

  • Khải | November 28, 2012 2:55 AM

    I agree with Brad, but I'd prefer Jessica Chastain to win the Best Actress though. And you're right, I think both Jessica and Jennifer are very talented and they deserve the same award

  • Brad | November 26, 2012 12:29 AM

    JT Jennifer Lawrence is the real deal, that performance she gave as well as just about every performance she has given in her short career have been outstanding. She is a real talent, and just because you do not like her does not mean she is being over-hyped, she is the most gifted actress of her generation. That being said, would not complain one bit if Jessica Chastain is rewarded with an oscar nomination. Both women are extremely talented and equally worthy of great roles.

  • jt | November 25, 2012 10:53 PM

    oogle monster, I hope Jessica Chastain wins the Oscar ( or Emmanuelle Riva or Marion Cotillard) , because I didn't care for Jennifer Lawrence's performance in Silver Linings Playbook. She has become the IT Girl that the media lovers to overpraise. SLP is one of the most overrated films this year, and most of the performances in that film are not Oscar worthy.

    Yes , this year has been extraordinary for films. This is the year that deserves 10 Best Picture nominations.

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