The 400-Word Review: Zero Dark Thirty

By Sean Collier

January 11, 2013

Chastain was clearly stunned by her Oscar nomination.

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One can almost imagine the terrible interpretations of the bin Laden hunt that many Hollywood directors would’ve happily supplied.

Tense, CSI-style bouts of forensic analysis. A Liam Neeson type glowering at a cowering terrorist undone by the sheer force of a steely gaze. Bradley Cooper kicking down the door of the Pakistan hideaway.

Fortunately, the directors who might’ve made those blunders weren’t chosen to handle the material. That job went to Kathryn Bigelow, already the creator of the single best movie about post 9/11 warfare, The Hurt Locker. With Zero Dark Thirty, she sets herself apart as the only auteur apparently capable of handling the last 10 years of military history.

Jessica Chastain, who firmly establishes herself as a world-class talent in Zero Dark Thirty, plays Maya, a young CIA operative singularly (and obsessively) focused on the hunt for bin Laden. As a rookie, she’s witness to harrowing interrogations that yield seemingly limited intelligence; grasping at a lead on a potential courier with ties to the al-Qaeda chief, though, Maya becomes convinced that she’s on the trail.

The first two hours of Zero Dark Thirty — which is comprehensive without feeling at all drawn-out — cover nearly 10 years of pursuit, and very little of it is pretty. There have been some misinformed complaints that the film takes a pro-torture stance, and that’s patently incorrect; in fact, I’d question the reaction of a viewer who takes Zero Dark Thirty that way. The scenes in question are difficult to watch and don’t attempt to shield the viewer from the indignity of interrogation.

Throughout, in fact, the viewer is left to face the unthinkable. Bigelow has no interest in constructing a smooth or palatable narrative; she strives to present the messy realities of modern warfare and conflict, just as she did in The Hurt Locker.


The final 30 minutes of the film depict the raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout, more or less in real time. The events are jarringly realistic; as much time is spent on doors that won’t open and curious neighbors as is spent on the assassination of the world’s most infamous terrorist. This is not the Hollywood version of events; it is as close as we’re likely to get to reality.

Zero Dark Thirty is an important and noble film; fortunately, it’s also an excellent film. If it’s not the best movie made in 2012, it’s awfully close.



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