Zero Dark Thirty

Jan 13, 2013

A thriller and a reality.

Zero Dark Thirty
Grade: A-
Director: Katherine Bigelow (Hurt Locker)
Screenplay: Mark Boal (Hurt Locker)
Cast: Jessica Chastain (The Help), Joel Edgerton (Warrior)
Rating: R
Runtime: 157 min.
by John DeSando

"I'm gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I'm going to kill bin Laden." Maya (Jessica Chestain)

It’s challenging to think of a more wanted fugitive any time in history than Osama bin Laden. It’s just as hard to think of a better thriller than Zero Dark Thirty (meaning military time, 12:30 a.m. when bin Laden was killed), Katherine Bigelow’s docudrama about the decade-long search headed by the lone female CIA operative, Maya (Chastain). She tries desperately to convince the boys that she can find bin Laden by following his personal Al Qaida courier.

The cool with which she amasses agent reports and fleshes out her hunch is as fascinating as the final segment where, in cinematic yet real detail, a chopper goes down but so does bin Laden. Yet her cool keeps us from knowing her in any depth, a drawback for me, who prefers fleshed out characters even in a docudrama.  Then, we don’t know much about anyone else in the film either.

We do witness in the first third of the film some torture techniques scary to behold, including the use of water. And while it is argued that no substantial information was gleaned from these situations, Zero is, after all, a reimagining, and the torture is instructive about warfare, regardless of where your politics come in. 

The last thirty minutes fulfill all expectations: Bigelow expertly shows, it would seem in real time, the Navy SEALs infiltrating the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound. Killing women along the way to get to bin Laden is the collateral damage no one wants but must endure. Realism prevails.

Certainly, the gets-you-to-talk factor is strong--strong for me especially with the distaff topic, the singularity of the female among a dominant male culture. In an inspired move, Bigelow and Boal (they won the Oscar for Hurt Locker) do not lard the film with male chauvinism; in fact I found only one reference to her not taking a lover in her assignments. 

Osama bin Laden is the only game Maya has played and the only one I wanted to see. I got what I wanted.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel.
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