Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty
By Matthew Huntley
December 24, 2012

Which movie am I in right now? Even I can't keep track.

There are many reasons to see Zero Dark Thirty, but a history lesson is not one of them. That’s not to say the film is necessarily inaccurate - I really have no way of knowing - but viewers shouldn’t seek it out as a means of learning the facts surrounding the 10-year manhunt to catch and kill Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks against the United States. They should seek it out for its dramatization of the events and pure entertainment value, upon which it delivers quite well.

I mention this is because there have already been some high-profile people, including a few out of Washington, D.C., who have condemned the movie for its questionable veracity, but neither they nor anyone should hold the film to be factual. And that doesn’t just go for Zero Dark Thirty, but all Hollywood movies. Granted, it does start off by saying it’s “based on” actual events, but there have been so many movies “based on” a true story that I think most moviegoers now take this phrase with a grain of salt, and if they don’t, they should start. Movies are not about fact so much as they are about feelings, moods, tones, speculations and vindication.

I’m not here to dispute whether the events portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty are true, false or exaggerated (for the record, I believe them to be fair representations of the truth, which is not the same as raw truth), but they do serve the film in such a way that make it a taut, intelligent and emotional thriller. That’s the reason to see it.

The film opens against a black screen and holds. It is September 11, 2001 and we hear a variety of recordings that sound like actual 911 calls about the two planes crashing into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center. No matter how many times you hear this audio, either real or re-enacted, it’s always disturbing.

We then cut to a black site at an undisclosed location in Pakistan, where two CIA agents interrogate a member of al-Qaeda. They employ torture methods, including wash boarding, in an attempt to break the prisoner so he’ll give up any information that could put the CIA on a path toward bin Laden’s whereabouts.

One of these agents is Maya (Jessica Chastain), who ensures her supervisor (Kyle Chandler) and colleague (Jason Clarke) that she didn’t volunteer for this project, but that doesn’t stop her from taking firm control of it. We can only imagine the endless theories and leads she and the other agents sifted through during their investigation until one of them finally led to something relevant. Director Kathryn Bigelow once again proves she’s a filmmaker who specializes in putting the audience in the shoes of the characters, as we practically share Maya’s fatigue, frustration and exhaustion before she has something she can run with.

The whole world knows how the investigation turned out but that doesn’t make the movie any less gripping. In fact, this is the second historical-driven film to come out in less than three months to utilize a real-life event and turn into an effective thriller. Ben Affleck’s Argo was the other, and now Bigelow shows how similar details, patience and stylistic editing can turn what’s essentially a genre picture into something spellbinding and memorable. As a movie, the facts are beside the point.

It’s fair to say this isn’t as striking or hard-hitting as Bigelow’s Strange Days or The Hurt Locker, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Director (the first female to take home the honor), since those movies were more ambitious and risky with their techniques. Zero Dark Thirty relies more on its content, which is inherently relevant and interesting, but just as Argo did, Bigelow relays it via traditional Hollywood means. Strange Days and The Hurt Locker were special because they retooled traditional formulas. Nevertheless, this is still a formidable, relentless thriller that continually builds tension all the way up to its last shot, where there comes a moment of well-earned absolution.

Bigelow possesses many gifts as a director, but her forte lies in her ability to place the audience at the scene. She’s helped, of course, by a superb technical team - in the case of The Hurt Locker and this film, a lot of the credit goes to the sound designers and mixers - who make it so the film affects us physically, and it takes a heightened sense of skill to pull that off. There are noisy films like Armageddon; and then there are effectively loud films like Zero Dark Thirty. This film actually scares us with its sounds as it recounts the major terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda between 9/11 and bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011. Even though we may sense these scenes coming, they still manage to shock us and catch us off guard, as if we’re there. And these aren’t “Gotcha!”-type moments like in a horror movie, but ones that disturb us viscerally and psychologically. They raise the tension so high that we start to want bin Laden dead as much as the heroine.

One of the best sequences takes place after Maya and her team clone the cell phone of one of bin Laden’s suspected couriers and drive aimlessly around a marketplace in Pakistan attempting to track him down. We want so badly for them to isolate the signal, yet we accept how many attempts it takes and what they’re essentially doing is searching for a needle in a haystack.

It’s interesting, but even though most of the scenes in this film manipulate us and are amplified for dramatic effect, it convinces us they could, or perhaps did, occur in real-life. That includes the CIA’s painfully slow response to act on Maya and her team’s intelligence that bin Laden is hiding out in a fortified compound in Pakistan. I believe that Maya, or anyone with a sense of commitment, really would write on her boss’s window the number of days that have passed where nothing has been done about it (she ends up writing on his window over a hundred days in a row and her irritation is palpable). The ever-versatile Chastain keeps her character grounded and unaffected, even though it must have been tempting to succumb to histrionics given the notoriety and controversy surrounding the material.

All movies should be effective in some way, and if the point of a thriller is to rouse us to the point where we experience the physical and mental anxieties of the characters, then Zero Dark Thirty is right up there with Argo as one of the better in recent memory, and each was directed by filmmakers who show they are fast becoming masters of this type of genre. And despite the supposed haziness surrounding its accuracy, I would say Zero Dark Thirty has significance beyond entertainment by instigating viewers to read up on how the events really happened. I’m not saying the film got them wrong, but like I said, I don’t go to the movies for fact; I go to the movies to be affected and this movie does just that.