Zero Dark Thirty Review: Burn for Burn, Wound for Wound

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Zero Dark Thirty Review: Burn for Burn, Wound for Wound

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | January 12, 2013 | Comments ()


Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who first worked together on The Hurt Locker, were in the process of making a movie about the 2001 battle of Tora Bora and its unsuccessful attempt to capture Osama bin Laden when, almost a decade after the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden was found and killed in a village in Pakistan. As Bigelow told Entertainment Weekly, when she and Boal heard the news, "what we had been working on became history." That's a fantastic, perfect way to put it. It's not just that their story became old news; it's that they finally had a way to weave loose threads into a narrative that would become Zero Dark Thirty. The death of bin Laden was the thing they and we had been waiting for, the final beat in a story we'd been trying to tell for years. Other films that dealt even obliquely with terrorism in the wake of 9/11 were necessarily about the unsuccessful search for an ending, and about how we could do nothing except relive a tragedy. Now, though, there could be an end point. There could be a physical goal, a piece of tangible evidence to offer up at the end of the story, a thing at which we could point and say, "We did this."

What Zero Dark Thirty does so brilliantly, though -- and this is a brilliant film in so many ways, big and small -- is to show how empty such promises can be. No story ever ends, not really, and real life certainly doesn't offer the kind of closure we crave. Osama bin Laden in a body bag isn't the end, not for the men who killed him or the country that hunted him down. It's not even a big moment when it finally happens. It's codewords on the radio and a long trip home; it's research and hard drives and looking for whatever's next; it's sitting alone and crying because you spent 12 years doing something that defined you, and now it's over, and all you can think about are the awful things you did to get here and how you can't imagine what you've become. It's circles so big you can't see the other side. Catharsis isn't winning, it's just knowing you survived.

Bigelow and Boal do a phenomenal job here distilling a decade-long manhunt into a methodical political thriller, but it's one that uses politics as its setting, not its message. The men and women who make up the CIA task forces at the heart of the film seem only tangentially concerned with primaries or elections, and their tactics and plans are focused only on solving the problem at hand and avoiding culpability for errors. To attempt to reduce the film to a political argument or op-ed column is to miss its nuances and to ignore its mission and power as cinema. The film is based on true events, but it communicates in emotion as much as it does fact, and its duty (if it has one) is to tell as honest a story as possible with as much truth as allowable. Much has been made in the press of the film's depiction of torture, but Bigelow directs those scenes with a frankness and clarity that eschew sermonizing. Zero Dark Thirty is brave precisely because its central characters are flawed, petty, cruel people willing to do brutal things to achieve often nebulous goals. Its protagonist, a CIA field agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain), is obsessive and ruthless in her pursuit of terrorist leaders, standing patiently by while an operative named Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures a detainee. "When you lie to me, I hurt you," Dan says to the man before waterboarding him, or stripping him, or forcing him into a small wooden box. At another point in the years-long manhunt, Maya and others watch then-Senator Obama talking on TV about how the United States doesn't torture people. They don't react one way or the other, though it's not like they don't know what they did, or what it cost them publicly (and maybe spiritually). Even the end of what's euphemistically called "the detainee program" is seen as little more than a logistical hurdle, and Dan at one point advises Maya, "You don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes." Maya's our protagonist and our way into the story's world, but she's anything but likable, especially after we see her so coolly approve (and even encourage) "enhanced interrogation." We see her act, and we wonder how far she'll go.

That's what the film is really about: consequence. Bigelow expertly shows these vengeances, these utter horrors, that people are capable of visiting each other, and how they're part of a longer series of events with no beginning or end in sight. Her direction and sense of story, pacing, and flow are phenomenal from top to bottom, and Boal's script makes the most of minor character details or dialogue to show the passage of time. It's no small feat to boil so many years into so few minutes, but they make it work. When Maya arrives at her first black site at the beginning of the film, she butts heads with a testy agent named Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), but subsequent scenes at different periods show them warming, working together, and finally inhabiting that intimate space known only to people whose lives are joined by some cause they can't relinquish. Similarly, Bigelow uses title cards to introduce new sections of the film, letting them act as chapter stops that let you orient yourself in the story while learning what each section will focus on. (Some are plain and direct, like "The Meeting," while others loom with silent dread of what's to come, like "Human Error.")

There are little moments, too, that speak to the filmmakers' skill. At one point, we see a CIA agent's work computer and are given a glimpse of the desktop wallpaper: it's a photo of a colleague killed in the field. What's amazing about this detail, and what's made it stick with me for weeks, is that Bigelow used it to flesh out a character in the most realistic way possible and didn't resort to phony manipulation. She doesn't linger on the image after the character leaves the desk, or use it as a callback later on (in word or image), or telegraph it as some reason for the character's actions. It's never mentioned again. Bigelow doesn't want to telegraph cause and effect, and she sure doesn't want to reduce a special agent's pursuit of a terrorist to a vendetta for a friend. Such clumsy handling would turn this into something small, would risk making it a television procedural and not a grand drama about damnation. As it is, we get a fantastic touch of real emotion, a solid expansion of character and emotion, and a moment that testifies to the level of commitment Bigelow brings to every aspect of the film.

Chastain's work as Maya could be the best thing she's ever done. She wears her fatigue in her face and shoulders, and she anchors the film with a performance that balances obsession with a sad, unflinching kind of humanity. Bigelow's got a deep bench, too: Kyle Chandler as a prickly, short-sighted bureaucrat; Clarke as the queasily charming bruiser; Ehle as an agent who works hard to hide just how tender she can be. They all work together perfectly, though it's Chastain that carries the show.

Bigelow is in top form here, though. The film's final section covers the SEAL team assault on the compound housing bin Laden, and it's masterful. Bigelow maintains perfect awareness of the space and geography of the sequence even in almost total darkness, which is incredibly hard to do, and she wisely drops the score and focuses solely on the quiet, deadly actions of the men on the ground. It's expertly done in every way, and its depiction of furtive battles against an often invisible enemy recall some of the best moments of The Hurt Locker. It's not a gung-ho, celebratory thing, either. Far from it. It's a tense, often uncomfortable, jaw-dropping sequence that deals bluntly with the human cost of conflict.

"We don't know what we don't know," Dan says at one point. He's talking with Maya and a superior about the huge gaps in their knowledge, and about their inability to find their way out of the weeds, but his statement encapsulates the worry and confusion that define these people during the long, messy, isolating chase for a man they half-believe to be dead. He's spinning his wheels, and he and everyone else are often too close to the problem to see its solutions. Bigelow deftly captures what it means for these people to be stuck in recursive, self-fulfilling patterns, and how easily rule and right can disappear when you let yourself believe that your cause is greater than all others. Zero Dark Thirty is about so many things, but its core is all about cost, and doubt, and the weight of trying to do what's right when you can't remember what that means. We did this. Now we have to make it make sense.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • MissAmynae

    well done, but I found it uneven, especially Chastain. I was more compelled by Dan (Jason Clarke). The last sequence, from when she starts counting days til the credits, however, was basically flawless. Otherwise, spots of really good-ness, mixed with scenes that felt identical to ones on "Homeland" and Claire Danes is a better actress than Jess. Beautifully shot, but didn't capture the feel as well as "Hurt Locker.

    beautifully written review, however. Really stellar.

  • Just have to say, this is one of the best reviews I have read in a long time. You captured exactly what I felt about the movie. This is why I only read Pajiba reviews anymore!

  • Steve Baker

    It was good but not the masterpiece you describe. Its a procedural and time was no one would have thought of making one as a major motion picture.


  • Just watched it . this movie is really beautiful!

  • Beautiful review.

  • Stephen Nein

    A rebuttal (but not by me):
    "Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama. Notice that I say nearly. Here’s how she cheats. After opening with a powerfully affecting collage of now sadly familiar audio clips of horrified air traffic controllers . . Bigelow segues into those torture scenes you have undoubtedly heard about. Tugging at our heartstrings to incite us to vengeful thoughts? That’s not playing fair. “Remember how terrible that day was?” she seems to be saying, “…so the ends justify the means, right? Anyone? Bueller?” The rub is that by most accounts, none of the intelligence instrumental to locating Bin Laden’s whereabouts was garnered via torture."

  • SoMuchSacred

    Saw the movie on Friday and LOVED IT. Great review.

    But I have to say seeing Jack Harkness and Burt Macklin kinda broke the diegesis for me :) When we saw Barrowman, my hubs leaned over and whispered, "Well, if Torchwood is on the job, what the f**k is anyone worried about?" And then when Pratt was all suited up and getting onto the helicopter, I got a big case o' the church giggles. Burt Macklin would have been so psyched he was going to kill bin Laden.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I read another comment somewhere about Pratt's presence being rather jarring.

  • BLZ Bubb

    You must have seen a different movie from the one I saw. Mine was basically a 160 minute episode of Law and Order (and I hate that show with a vengeance).

  • Shy

    What? Where did it remind Law and Order? How? It remained Homeland if you want to campare.

  • the dude

    I didn't want bigelow to win for the hurt locker , but im sad she didn't even get a nom for this film, which I thought was the best of the year by far.

  • Quatermain

    "Bigelow and Boal do a phenomenal job here distilling a decade-long
    manhunt into a methodical political thriller, but it’s one that uses
    politics as its setting, not its message." Good for them. That's a trick that the vast majority of 'topical' movies never really get, which is why so many of them come across as axe-grinding or preachy.

  • ,

    I wasn't as sold on "The Hurt Locker" as so many people seemed to be. I thought it was kind of cliched and got a lot of mileage out of "dog walking on its hind legs" syndrome: Look! A woman made a war movie! It doesn't havr to be good, it's just remarkable that she did it at all!

    But I'm going to give her another chance here, hoping that Daniel isn't awarding bonus points. Can't remember if it was Esquire or The New Yorker, but it was one of them, did an extremely detailed story about the raid on bin Laden's compound that noted the fuckups and near-disasters along the way. I'll be interested in seeing if Bigelow can bring that to life.

  • duckandcover

    Not just a woman: James Cameron's ex-wife who stole the Oscar from Avatar. ¡Escandalo!

  • e jerry powell

    Now she needs to make a blockbuster with his other ex-wife so his balls will completely evaporate.

  • Matt

    It wasn't only not good it had to have been among the worst researched movie I've ever seen. It made csi look like a realistic in depth look at how police forensics work.

  • Walter Ray Choi

    The season's most overrated snore.

  • I'm usually pretty good about switching my brain into movie mode and divorcing what's on screen from being too tied to reality. But I just don't think I can do that with this movie. In fact, it seems the point of the movie is to set itself in reality and allow you to make a judgement about the events it depicts.

    So I'm going to have to pass because I just don't think I can enjoy it, regardless of how well made it is. And I think that's a shame because I like to reward skilled filmmakers.

  • Subversable

    The head of the CIA has complained that this movie fosters an unrealistic perception of the effectiveness of torture. The head of the CIA! These are the people who run half our torture chambers, and their boss is offended by this film's propagandizing in favor of the practice.

  • Az

    The head of the CIA is practicing a time honored tradition of the CIA called CYA.

  • GDI

    I had this same issue with The Hurt Locker; that film is basically a parody of the real Army and how EOD does it's job. Each scene was bombast bullshit, with reckless, cavalier attitudes dominating, insurgents taking out an SAS squad and then giving an the American forces hell when the Army troops had a 50 cal sniper rifle at their disposal, an E-7 telling his firing squad to "split up to cover more ground" and other stupidities among those.

    I'm pretty sure the CIA will find this tripe just as insulting. I was considering this movie over Jack Reacher, but Tom Cruise looks to be a little more enticing now after being informed of Kathryn Bigelow's involvement.

    "Unknown unknowns"? Coming from spec ops? Wow, that pretty much seals the deal.

  • alone in the dark

    "We don't know what we don't know" comes from one of the CIA interrogators/analysts, not SEAL Team 6. Untwist your knickers.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    It's also just a restatement Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns"

  • lowercase_ryan

    Fantastic review.

  • Fredo

    Sounds similar to Spielberg's Munich.

    Can't wait to see it.

  • Wembley

    I hate these period movies. They try to get it looking right, but you can always tell. And the actors all try to talk 'old-timey' and it sounds so contrived (and stupid). People didn't talk like that back then. It's lazy acting.

  • duckandcover

    bin Laden died in 2011. How "old timey" is that, exactly?

  • Zuffle

    Dan, it never ceases to amaze me how succinct, purposeful and fucking spellbinding your writing is. If the film is half as well put together as this review, it will clean up at the Oscars. Thank you.

  • duckandcover


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