Peter Debruge, Variety:
Wildly more ambitious than "The Hurt Locker," yet nowhere near so tripwire-tense, this procedure-driven, decade-spanning docudrama nevertheless rivets for most of its running time by focusing on how one female CIA agent with a far-out hunch was instrumental in bringing down America's most wanted fugitive.
By forcing partisan politics into the wings (President George W. Bush goes entirely unseen, while auds' only glimpse of President Obama is during a 2008 campaign interview), the duo effectively give gender politics the whole stage: "Zero Dark Thirty" presents the highest-profile U.S. military success of our lifetime as the work of a single woman, "Maya," inspired by a real CIA analyst Boal discovered during his research.
Like Bigelow herself, Maya realizes that actions -- or action movies, in the director's case -- are the surest way to combat a tradition in which society doesn't believe women to be capable of getting the job done, and "Zero Dark Thirty" follows the character through every significant step along her 10-year journey to hold bin Laden accountable for 9/11.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter:
As it has emerged instead, it could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal, as one keenly feels the drive of the filmmaker channeled through the intensity of Maya's character… Chastain carries the film in a way she's never been asked to do before. Denied the opportunity to provide psychological and emotional details for Maya, she nonetheless creates a character that proves indelible and deeply felt. The entire cast works in a realistic vein to fine effect.
Richard Corliss, Time:
First and last, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, and a damned fine one. Like Argo — which, with all due respect to director Ben Affleck and the film’s many admirers, ZDT blows out of the water — it dramatizes a true-life international adventure with CIA agents as the heroes. (And it takes fewer fictional liberties with the source material than Affleck did.) In the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Boal tracked down the particulars of a sensational exploit and, skipping the “non-fiction novel” stage, created an original screenplay that provides a streamlined timeline of the hunt for bin Laden. The word “docudrama” doesn’t hint at Boal’s achievement. This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.
It’s a subject perfect for Bigelow… As a bright young woman driven to bring down an al Qaeda terrorist, Maya shares aspects of Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison in the Showtime series Homeland, but she lacks Carrie’s defining neuroses — or much other personal biography. What are Maya’s political beliefs? Who are her family and friends back home? Does she have a sex life? Doesn’t matter: she is her job. In a way, Maya is the CIA equivalent of Bigelow: a strong woman who has mastered a man’s game.