Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

'Zero Dark Thirty' Review and Torture Debate - Senate Committee Probing Bigelow and Boal's CIA Contact [UPDATED]

Reviews
by Anne Thompson & Sophia Savage
January 3, 2013 3:31 PM
13 Comments
  • |
Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow collaborated again with her screenwriter partner Boal from 2010 best-picture-winner "The Hurt Locker." He effectively reported the film in real time: the opening title card reads "based on first hand accounts." One thing that Boal discovered about the decade-long post-9/11 pursuit to track down Osama bin Laden--the journalist was focused on the CIA's failure to do so until real events caught up with him on May 1, 2011-- was that women were key players. This makes the movie groundbreaking in more ways than one. "We started getting the idea to capture history in the context of the drama of the capture at this moment of time in American life," said Boal. "We wanted to make something that stands up to the test of time."

Bigelow added that having the film feel real and contempory was important; the actors had to perform "in a narrow band-width not using conventional Hollywood tropes, working within the rigorous confines of history." The title refers to military jargon for 30 minutes past midnight, as well as the exact time--12:30 AM--when the Navy SEALs first stepped into the Bin Laden compound.

The film starts by dropping young CIA agent Maya (Chastain) into the thick of the action in Pakistan as the local CIA chief (Kyle Chandler of "Argo") and her agent colleagues (Jason Clarke of "Lawless" and Jennifer Ehle of "Contagion") are deep into the investigation into Bin Laden's terrorist network. They are interrogating and torturing suspects (Bigelow does not spare us here, from pain and choke collars to waterboarding), desperate for leads. Maya arrives with a reputation: "She's a killer." She becomes obsessed with one courier and his link to Bin Laden. When other people get distracted, she does not. When politics intervene, she won't let anyone forget her singleminded purpose: to kill Bin Laden.

Chastain is tough, steadfast and foul-mouthed as Maya, and does little to make her charming or accessible. There's no back story and thankfully, no love interest. She's based on a real CIA model: what you see is what you get. In one crowd-pleasing scene when she is the only woman in a room full of suits, she calls herself a "motherfucker" in front of CIA chief Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini).

While CIA officer Mark Strong lets a room full of CIA agents have it after yet another terrorist event--the movie reminds us of the real-life cost and sacrifice brought by the war on terror--that's nothing compared to the fury unleashed by Maya in pursuit of her cause. "I've learned from my predecessor that life is better when I don't disagree with you," says one of her bosses. These men are terrified of her. And put up with her because she's that good. "She's smart," one says to Panetta. "We're all smart," Panetta snaps.

Chastain makes a most satisfying heroine and will earn her second Oscar nomination ("The Help" was her first). She did her homework, she told the SAG members at the screening Sunday. She had to learn the real meaning of the agency lingo, and sat down with Boal to go over every line. Chastain had already worked with Clarke on "Lawless," and Bigelow said she admired her work in Ralph Fiennes' Shakespeare film "Coriolanus."

Sasha Stone Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez

This role "required tremendous talent," said Bigelow. "She had to be able to handle with verbal agility the comprehensive and complex dialogue." At noon the day after Chastain took her grandmother to the Oscars, she was on a 25-hour flight to Chandahar, India to start shooting the movie that she calls her most difficult to date. "It was not hard to leave this role," she said. "It was so intense making this movie." Chastain said she discovered her character when a group went to tour a mosque; while the men were allowed in, Bigelow, Annapurna chief Megan Ellison and Chastain had to don full robes. "I felt invisible," she said.

The movie is as relentless as its heroine, laying out the hard facts and details without flinching from its purpose, which is to make real the daily headlines. Bigelow deploys 120 speaking parts--her cast ranges from Venezuelan (Edgar Ramirez) to Australian (Clarke and Joel Edgerton as the leader of the Navy SEAL team that raids the Bin Laden compound) to British (Stephen Dillane, Strong, Ehle)-- and three to four roving cameras to catch the unfolding action in wide-ranging locations from India, Egypt and Jordan to London and Washington, D.C. "You shoot it, you do it," said Clarke. "You bust your ass, the long takes give vitality."

The last section of the movie makes a satisfying finale, as real tension builds before an unseen president Barack Obama finally gives the green light to order the Navy SEALs to fulfil Maya's mission. The irony, concluded Boal, was that "the leader of Al Qaeda was defeated by the specter he feared most: a liberated western woman."

No question that this movie advances the careers of Chastain and Clarke and could knock Ben Affleck's popular "Argo" down a notch--it's that film's more advanced and contemporary cousin, on steroids. (It may not be as successful at the box office, however. Bigelow has never been eager to please. And yet curiosity about its content may drive audiences to check it out--it brooks comparison to 1976 Oscar-winner "All the President's Men.")

Predictably, critics can't resist comparing the director to her central character.  Rotten Tomatoes link here.  "Zero Dark Thirty" opens December 19, then wider in January.  Reviews below.

13 Comments

  • JAB | January 14, 2013 9:10 PMReply

    Did anybody critical of the torture scenes in ZDT ever see "Syrianna"? That scene with Clooney getting his finger nails pulled out was MUCH tougher to watch than anything is this movie.
    ZDT is just a flat great movie that will stand the test of time. It is not nearly as entertaining as "Argo" (which I love) but is just as riveting . ZDT is more like an "All The President's Men" in its approach to its storytelling & pacing. Like you I like it as much as for what it doesn't give us almost as much for what it did give us. Chastain has a great role to work with & she excells in it. Jason Clarke, Edgerton, Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle & the rest of the cast are all top rate. This is one helluva movie.

  • TrueDarkness | January 4, 2013 4:49 PMReply

    As a soldier, I watched Zero Dark Thirty with a different perspective to the average audience member. I saw the torture scenes, and my VERY FIRST THOUGHT was "damn, that's pretty accurate". Although it is a war-crime, it happens. We are trained (special/elite ops) not just how to survive and overcome torture, but obviously how to dish it out (the best defense is a good offense). Now 99% of soldiers/naval officers/marines/airman will never use it. But there is that minority, who in the heat of the moment, does things no human being should do. Those moments are the ones shown in the torture scenes. It does happen. In almost every military world wide. Accept it, and move on. The job gets done, and mass murderer and terrorists are eliminated.

  • TrueDarkness | January 4, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    As a soldier, I watched Zero Dark Thirty with a different perspective to the average audience member. I saw the torture scenes, and my VERY FIRST THOUGHT was "damn, that's pretty accurate". Although it is a war-crime, it happens. We are trained (special/elite ops) not just how to survive and overcome torture, but obviously how to dish it out (the best defense is a good offense). Now 99% of soldiers/naval officers/marines/airman will never use it. But there is that minority, who in the heat of the moment, does things no human being should do. Those moments are the ones shown in the torture scenes. It does happen. In almost every military world wide. Accept it, and move on. The job gets done, and mass murderer and terrorists are eliminated.

  • Evin C | January 3, 2013 8:38 PMReply

    So the US Govt. is giving Zero Dark Thirty a bunch of crap and stirring up all this heat because they think the film is pro-torture? Does the US Govt. have any faith in movie going audiences to let them form their own opinions, or do they automatically think that all Americans are going to see it that way? Censorship much. Let's face it, anyone with common sense could have guessed that some kind of torture "may" have been used in the hunt for Osama. This is America, it's not as perfect as everyone wishes it was. The govt. should just bite the bullet and let the public come to their own conclusions.

  • Is Oscar season over yet? | January 3, 2013 6:54 PMReply

    Awards season is truly insufferable. I'm sick of ZDT, sick of these inconsequential debates, sick of the politicking, sick of the relentless campaigning and I'm sick of Jessica Chastain and this contrived feminist schtick. Can this all be over already, so we can return to the movies?

  • Anne Thompson | January 3, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    We're both right. She was born in America and raised in London; she's the daughter of Brit actress Rosemary Harris. She has a British accent.

  • jg | January 3, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    Chastain may have done her homework, but none of these smug, head up their ass "critics" have done likewise. None seem to know anything whatsoever about the case, and easily accept the lies of the CIA torturers as good enough resemblance to fact. The Nazis would have loved such a non-critical "critical" environment. Some inconvenient facts -- torture is a felony. A war crime, a violation of the Geneva conventions. There is no statute of limitations. It also didn't lead to any information about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, and therefore the film presents clear lies to the viewers. The Real "Maya" -- http://wp.me/pwAWe-Sc

  • jg | January 3, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    Chastain may have done her homework, but none of these smug, head up their ass "critics" have done likewise. None seem to know anything whatsoever about the case, and easily accept the lies of the CIA torturers as good enough resemblance to fact. The Nazis would have loved such a non-critical "critical" environment. Some inconvenient facts -- torture is a felony. A war crime, a violation of the Geneva conventions. There is no statute of limitations. It also didn't lead to any information about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, and therefore the film presents clear lies to the viewers. The Real "Maya" -- http://wp.me/pwAWe-Sc

  • Josh | January 3, 2013 4:10 PMReply

    Ehle is American.

  • JAB | November 27, 2012 11:26 PMReply

    I can't wait to catch this film. I've been a Bigelow fan since "Near Dark" (the best vampire film ever made in a genre filled with a lot of really good films). "Blue Steel", "Point Break", the under-rated "Strange Days" &, of course, her well-deserved Oscar winning "The Hurt Locker" are movies I've seen several times. We've had "The Dark Knight Rises", "Argo", "Lincoln" as cinematic high marks (I haven't caught "...Playbook" yet) & now comes ZDT.

  • ag | November 26, 2012 2:10 PMReply

    wait. richard corliss says, "First and last, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, and a damned fine one." really? that's what passes as movie criticism now? zdt 'is a movie...'

  • Corvo | November 26, 2012 9:47 AMReply

    Jingoistic feminism. Laughable.

  • Feminist unite | November 26, 2012 1:53 AMReply

    Girl power rah-rah-rah. She's so tough she eats nails for breakfast and can kill American's number one enemy before 5AM.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

Email Updates

Most "Liked"

  • Sony Counters Bad Press with 'Spider-Man' ...
  • PBS Preview: Six New 'Makers' Documentaries ...
  • Toronto Film Festival Global Summit ...
  • Distribution Maestro Jeff Blake Exits ...
  • Trailers From Hell Opens 'The Doors ...
  • Trailers From Hell Loves 'All That ...
  • FIRST LOOK: Toronto Best Actress Candidate ...
  • Which World Premieres Did Venice La ...
  • Parker Posey and Jamie Blackley Will ...
  • Get Tied Down With First Trailer for ...