Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty arrives in theatres a day after securing several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and after riding a wave of controversy regarding the use of torture in the military. This gives the film the added pressure of having to live up to the hype as there will be people going into the film looking to pick it apart. It should be noted though that, as hard as it will be at this point, Zero Dark Thirty works best when you put aside all preconceived notions and just observe the film for what it actually is; an account of the steps, and many missteps, America took in their hunt to find Osama bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty is being billed as a taut thriller, similar to Bigelow’s previous film The Hurt Locker, but it is a political procedural first and foremost. This is not to say that the film does not have its thrills scattered throughout. The last half in particular, in which we get to see an account of how bin Laden was taken down, offers some of the most fascinating moments of the film. However, the main crux of the film focuses on the various leads and internal politics that the CIA had to navigate over the ten years it took for them to locate the most wanted man in the world.

While the capture of bin Laden involved numerous people at all levels of government agencies and military personnel, the film primarily focuses on a young CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain) whose determination to find bin Laden begins to border on obsessive. At first it is questionable if Maya will even be able to handle her first day on the job at the CIA “Black Site” in Pakistan. Hours into the job Maya bares witnesses to the numerous interrogation techniques that fellow agent, Dan (Jason Clarke in a star making turn), uses to get information from prisoners. Some of which include waterboarding, sleep deprivation through rock music, and sexual humiliation. However, Maya soon proves to be even more thick skinned and resolved than her counterparts. At one point even her boss Joseph (Kyle Chandler) remarks that “Washington says she is a killer.”

It is this cool and calculated focus that eventually leads to Maya tracking down Abu Ahmed (Tushaar Merhar), a key member of bin Laden’s inner circle. Unlike Jamie Lee Curtis’ Megan Turner in Blue Steel, the last female centric lead in a Bigelow film, Maya and her motivations are enigmatic. There is little we ever learn about her outside of the fact that she was recruited by the CIA right out of high school, has no significant other and no friends at all. She is the type of person who shows very little emotion and frequently bullies her superiors into getting what she wants. She is an interesting, and at times, frustrating riddle to decipher.

The lack of insight into Maya really becomes apparent when the film takes detours in which it follows supporting characters such as Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), an agent who sets up an ill-fated meeting with an al-Qaida informant. Though Maya is the main thread which ties the film together, Bigelow and her writing partner Mark Boal make an interesting choice to abandon the character on several occasions. At one point we follow a group of agents trying to locate Abu Ahmed in a crowded market, and later on we are closely following The Navy Seal team when breach bin Laden’s compound. It helps to give a sense of how big in scope the lengthy operation was.

These detours may put off some, as it gives the film an episodic structure at times, but they are ultimately key in allowing Bigelow and Boal the freedom to really delve into the various facets of the initiative. Though the torture sequences at the beginning of the film has generated the most debate, it is the scenes like the market sequence and hundred plus days it took to convince the White House to invade the compound that are the most fascinating aspects of the film. Zero Dark Thirty may be a fictional account of the hunt for bin Laden, Bigelow does a great job of incorporating real terrorist events that occurred during the time bin Laden roamed free.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film that will not please everyone. Those looking for action will be greatly disappointed as it takes two hours of the two hour and forty minute run time, for the compound raid to occur. However, those seeking a political procedural will find much to enjoy in the film. Despite seeming episodic at times, the behind the scenes feel that Bigelow provides of the extensive search for bin Laden is expertly crafted.


  1. Good review CS. It's a very hard-hitting flick that definitely sticks with you, long after it's over. However, when it does come to the politics and overall message of this movie, you can easily put it down to: ehh, torture's bad, but it's necessary. Maybe that's just my interpretation but it seems to be one that makes more and more sense to me now.

  2. I know many of discussed this film to no end, but I was glad I finally got around to seeing the movie on Wednesday. It's fascinating, as expressed in your review. I wrote mine as well. Still looking for some discourse that doesn't dwell in the film's "torture" elements.

  3. As a fan of the show 24, I am a little surprised by how much press the "torture" aspects have been getting in the media. I felt like it was such a small part of the film. What interested me the most about the film was the internal struggles Maya faced at every turn, the effects of the job on Dan, and the various tricks and bribes America resorted to in their hunt. There is so much more to this film than the first twenty minutes.

  4. While I agree that the statement on torture is as you said "bad but necessary". The overall political statement I got from the film is that when conducting a global manhunt, you have to jump through numerous political red tape. If you think about it, they needed to show hardcore proof before taken any of action. The problem with this is that most of the time they were forced to gather their information based on hunches and hearsay.

  5. Upon initial viewings I had mixed emotions about how Boal/Bigelow used Maya. It felt odd to have a female lead, which is rare for this type of film, and not set her up in a way to justify the final shot. However, having reflected on the film for a few days, I have come to terms with the notion that the job was always bigger than the character. Looking at it from that perspective, I actually think it was a good choice on Boal/Bigelow's part.

  6. I'll agree with the procedural aspect but not so much with the "political" part. One of the more frustrating aspects of the film is the way that Boal and Bigelow decisively avoid making any observation on the inherent politicism of the film they're doing. I suspect that like any filmmaker dealing with a difficult subject they are aiming for objectivity (hence the relentless journalistic style) but the valiant disinterest in any "big picture" implication of the entire process leaves me a bit…cold.

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