Review: Zero Dark Thirty


Zero Dark Thirty has come under plenty of criticism since it released in limited runs last year. Most of this criticism has been a bit trumped up by politicians, but there is plenty of reason for the film to push buttons. By now you have probably heard of the film’s torture sequences and the fact that it isn’t a fact-by-fact recreation of everything that’s happened.

I bring this up because it’s important to discuss, but it isn’t what this review will be discussing (though Alec’s second opinion at the end does dive into it). This review will discuss Zero Dark Thirty as a film, which, by the way, was never intended to be a documentary. So when I talk about how the movie presents itself and tells its story I’m not saying it’s 100 percent factual, but that the story it tells it tells really, really well. Leave the mostly drummed up controversy behind and read on.

Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rated: R
Release Date: January 11, 2013 

The story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden starts long before he was shot in his outpost in Pakistan, and if you’re looking for the tale of Seal Team Six and their heroics that night than this is not your movie. Or, to be more exact, this first two thirds of this film is not your movie. The majority of the film focuses on the dogged tenacity of CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she basically hunts down a lead that no one else believes in: finding Osama Bin Ladens messenger. Once he’s found the film switches over into a recreation of the raid itself. It’s almost two separate films really, but director Katherine Bigelow knows how to keep both feeling like the same movie with her gritty, in-your-face style that rarely pulls punches.

This is especially true of the film’s prolonged torture sequence of the man who eventually puts Maya onto Bin Laden’s messenger. Both thought provoking and enthralling the torture occurs over a multitude of days and is particularly disturbing. What’s truly impressive is how Bigelow keeps any opinion out of the piece, instead letting the scenes unfold as if she were simply presenting fact. It’s a rare skill to be able to make it feel like personal bias is not part of a work, but Bigelow does it. This allows for the audience to apply their own personal opinions to what is going on. This makes the scene, and indeed the entire film, not a lightning rod for controversy, but for discussion instead. Sadly, people don’t seem to know how to discuss anymore.

It isn’t just this scene that works that magic, but the entire film up until the raid itself. Bigelow smartly keeps almost all politics out of the film, only mentioning the President (both Bush and Obama) a scattering of times and keeping their influence well removed from the personal focus on Maya and her messianic quest to kill Bin Laden. A political statement would have ruined this story and destroyed the purpose of the film. Instead we’re treated to a tense, almost too in depth plot that pins us to our seats before exploding into the conclusion you waited the whole movie to see.

That conclusion, the final raid on Bin Ladens compound, is executed wonderfully. Without turning Seal Team Six into an action movie cliche the film takes a group of soldiers we’ve just been introduced to and makes us care about every action. It helps that we’re all invested in seeing Bin Laden get shot, but even here, when the movie could have easily been heavy handed and jingoistic we’re presented with a scene that is almost completely devoid of “slant.” While no one is going to argue that Bin Laden didn’t deserve to get shot in the face, recreating the scene as a celebration of America winning out would have felt cheap and easy. Instead it’s a dark and somber set piece that grips the viewer without demanding they do anything but understand what is being presented. You’re once again left making your own decisions about what you see.

The weakest part of the film is sadly Jessica Chastain who never seems to really come out of the shell her character is supposedly in at the beginning of the film. While many have praised her turn in the film it never clicked with me, seeming shallow instead of layered. I am obviously in the minority on this. Her character is still compelling enough, but she is often overshadowed by the other actors and events in the film making some moments at the end with her character feel far less important than they should have. We now know that she got an Oscar nod while Bigelow did not, which is simply perplexing to me as it’s Bigelow’s direction that makes her role truly great.

This is a great movie. While the pacing and plotting could have used some ironing here and there, Bigelow keeps the intricate plot of a very in-depth story interesting without turning the movie into a political piece. More importantly she doesn’t make a film that shies away from the story she wanted to tell. Others would tell this story as a blaze of glory in which Osama Bin Laden was taken down, but there’s so much more to it that Zero Dark Thirty brings light to.

Editors Choice

Alec Kubas-Meyer: About eleven months ago, Denzel Washington was water-boarded on camera. I’d seen the late Christopher Hitchens get waterboarded, so the act wasn’t really a shock… but it was still unpleasant. Part of that is because it’s one of those things that you really can’t fake. Whether it is that actor or a stunt double, someone’s body is being convinced that it’s drowning for the entertainment of the masses. But when I saw an actor get waterboarded again, this time in Zero Dark Thirty, my first thought was, “Wait… that’s not right.” It wasn’t. The waterboarding in Zero Dark Thirty (untimed, unmeasured, and unprepared) is even less realistic than the one in Safe House. Reality has been tainted… for the entertainment of the masses. It’s a damning way to really open a film that purports to be based on first hand accounts. 

That isn’t to say I disliked Zero Dark Thirty, far from it. I very much enjoyed the film. It’s gripping, blends fiction and nonfiction footage fairly well, and captures one of the most significant moments in the endless War on Terror while only occasionally switching its characters’ dialogue over to the the anti-War rhetoric that plagued The Hurt Locker. But it’s still a piece of entertainment. For proof, look no further than the casting of Chris Pratt (still playing Andy Dwyer) as a member of Seal Team Six. Seriously, what were they thinking? Regardless, Zero Dark Thirty is absolutely worth seeing. It is really good, and it is a really good conversation starter (conversations I would start here if I wasn’t already well over my allotted word count). It’s just unfortunate that it’s not great.

A few weeks back, I specifically requested that the Flixist year-end awards be pushed back because I hoped that it would force me to reconsider my year’s Top 5 list. It didn’t. Zero Dark Thirty won’t end up on my Top 5 list of 2012. It probably won’t even be in my Top 10. Wherever it lands, though, it will be beneath Safe House78 – Good

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.