REVIEW: 'Zero Dark Thirty'


The debate seems to heat up more by the day. Does Zero Dark Thirty advocate torture? Does it provide fuel for Islamic radicals? The movie industry and the American government are arguing back and forth about Kathryn Bigelow’s new film. Veteran actors like Martin Sheen and Ed Asner are protesting the movie, and others say they're voting against the film in the Academy Awards on principle.

What all these people have forgotten is that Zero Dark Thirty is still a film. It’s an interpretation of history, depicting real events with – admittedly – brutal amounts of detail. Actors play a collection of real and fictitious characters, including a memorable performance by Jessica Chastain. There’s more to the film than the controversy surrounding it. It’s disappointing that some people need to be reminded of that, because Zero Dark Thirty deserves its place among the best films of 2012.

Perhaps the killing of Osama bin Laden is still a sensitive topic. Perhaps opponents of the film have a hard time reconciling themselves with the fact that extreme, often barbaric methods may have been used to find him. But Bigelow preserves those tactics in her film. She explores the intelligence gathering by the CIA to its fullest extent, and passes it on for her audience to digest.

Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA officer leading the hunt for Bin Laden

Bigelow accomplishes this with a stripped-down, almost episodic approach. She doesn’t waste time with camera flourishes or fancy editing. Bigelow only presents what she feels is relevant information, and the movie skips forward in time when the facts have been delivered: first by two years, then four years, then by several months.  The structure demands that the viewer pay attention. Combined with the CIA jargon in the dialogue, the pacing makes for a movie that rewards committed fans of the spy genre, and may prove daunting to newcomers.

The character at the centre of it all is Maya (Chastain), the CIA officer whose whole career has hinged on finding bin Laden. Appropriately, we don’t learn much about her, only that she believes she has been “spared” the fate of her dead colleagues so she can complete her mission. It’s not until the final scene that Maya becomes a bit of a tragic character, a woman who now has nowhere to go. And while Chastain has a number of strong moments as Maya, it’s for that last scene that I’d like to see her pick up the Best Actress trophy.

I worry, though, that the debate over the torture in Zero Dark Thirty will cloud the perception of Chastain's character by those who haven’t seen the film.  It’s possible that Maya will be remembered as a character who enjoys torturing inmates. The reverse is actually true; the tactic disgusts her.

While she does rely on the information she receives from tortured prisoners, every time Maya witnesses the violence, she’s left visibly sick to her stomach. Credit is due to Chastain, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal for resisting the temptation to make Maya into an emotionless automaton.

Some have accused the scene of the raid on bin Laden’s compound of resembling a video game (I assume like Call of Duty). While I can see the similarity, the criticism doesn’t acknowledge the tension that Bigelow packs into the scene. We all know the ultimate outcome, and yet I was following every movement of the soldiers. Sequences like that prove Bigelow is still looking to take the audience for a ride, even as she recreates a defining moment of American history.

Mark Strong as George, Maya's superior who helps convince the administration to listen to Maya

It does, however, highlight a problem with the tone of Zero Dark Thirty. Did Bigelow seek to entertain, to inform, or both? What degree of escapism is the film selling? The scenes of torture are disturbingly real, and yet there are lighter moments between the soldiers or even between Maya and her coworkers.

Some may find fault with the divided tone. But I wonder if it’s meant to reflect the bizarre way that drama, tragedy and comedy can intersect in real life.  Take it as further evidence of Bigelow seeking a complete portrayal of the hunt for bin Laden, and not a selective one. Zero Dark Thirty gets three and a half stars out of four.

Three and a Half Stars

What did you think of Zero Dark Thirty? Is it a thrilling depiction of recent history? Or did the scenes of torture take things too far? Join the discussion in the comments section! If you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers, and check out some of my recent reviews below:


New Releases:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey | Killing Them Softly | Lincoln | Skyfall

Reviews of Classic Movies:

A Fistful of Dollars | Midnight Cowboy | Doctor Zhivago | 2001: A Space Odyssey