Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

By Matthew Huntley

December 24, 2012

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

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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.

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