Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Four years after the brilliant The Hurt Locker, which earned her an Oscar for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow came back with another war film, Zero Dark Thirty, the film I've been meaning to watch but kept putting off because of its genre and length for the past seven years. Netflix adding it to their catalogue was the push I needed to finally watch the film and I'm glad I spent 157 minutes to watch it as it turned out to be such a gripping thriller all the way through, with great performances from its cast.

Written by Oscar-winner Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), the story is a dramatized depiction of the events that led to the discovery of Usama bin Laden's whereabouts and his eventual killing. It is divided into two parts. The first follows a stubborn female CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), over the course of 10 years as she obsessively hunts down al-Qaeda's leader. The second, shorter part focuses on the US Navy SEALs operation that led to the killing of bin Laden. 

Zero Dark Thirty's is a compelling and gripping story about the strenuous fight to find a man who cannot be found, a story that sucks you in, engages you and makes you feel the frustration of the CIA agents as their search goes nowhere, going three steps backwards for each step forward. 

One of the many criticisms the film got back in 2012 is the lack of character development. And it's true, the characters are underdeveloped. But shouldn't one keep in mind Bigelow and Boal's intention? Depicting a historical event and the set of events that led to it rather than making yet another Hollywoodian war film that focuses on its main character and essentially forgets about the event itself. Which is exactly what they did, a dramatized historical film that feels authentic from start to finish. 

Despite the lack of development, the character of Maya makes for a very interesting lead. She is a war machine in the sense that she's tenacious, determined, and won't let anything or anyone stop her. She is a smart, hard-working woman who tries to find her way, make her voice heard in a man's world. But there's also a human side to her. As much as she wants to find her target, she cannot stomach torture and the tragedies striking fellow CIA agents and innocent people, and at the end, although she does it, she find al-Qaeda's poster boy, she is wrecked because of how much it was lost because of it. 

Jessica Chastain is a force to be reckoned with as she gives an astonishing performance as Maya. She captures to perfection every single aspect of the character's personality and does an excellent job at delivering Maya's emotional state. Is it believable that a single person, moreover a woman some could say, was able to accomplish all that? No, it's not, but Chastain's performance is one of the things that makes it believable. 

The supporting cast also gives strong and compelling performances, despite their brief screen time and thin characters, with Jason Clarke being the standout as the CIA agents who initiates Maya into the tough work of handling terrorists.

Authenticity is the other aspect of the film that struck me the most. The reproducing of the compound's surveillance footage is impressive, as it is the insense final half hour that follows the SEALs operation — Bigelow does a wonderful job at making it suspenseful and tense through night vision shots from the SEALs point-of-view. This part of the film is so masterfully shot that it feels real as if the events play out in real-time.

Zero Dark Thirty does have one major issue though, it is incredibly uncomfortable to watch right from the beginning as it opens with phone recordings of 9/11, followed by a brutal, almost unbearable torture sequence. 

Which brings me to another thing Bigelow's film was criticized for, being pro-torture. Now, I get that each one of us is entitled to his/her own opinion, but if you think torture is portrayed in a good light in the film and justified as a mean for the greater good, in that case, I'm not sure we have seen the same film. Sure, the interrogations are shown producing useful and accurate information throughout but it's also shown how it was hunches that led to the discovery of bin Laden. The filmmakers simply want to present us with the hard truth, to show how far we are willing to go to protect our safety and freedom, even though it means taking from rights away from others.

At last, many criticized Zero Dark Thirty for being an American propaganda film. Again, I'm not sure exactly how a 10 year order ending in an execution-style raid, a raid that happened because of lucky hunches, not through interrogation and whose target's identity wasn't even certain, a raid that resulted in SEALs and a helicopter crash killing innocent people, can be seen as American propaganda. How exactly does this paint America in a good light?

Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is not a perfect film as it comes with its flaws — the characters are thin, there are some incredibly cheesy and quite cringy lines here and there (I'm the motherfucker who found this place), and some artistic liberties were taken with some of the events —, but it definitely isn't the propaganda film it has been accused of being — if anything, Bigelow had a feminist agenda. The film is, on the contrary, a realistic, suspenseful and absorbing war thriller.


  1. Seriously, are you me?! I've been avoiding this movie for the same reasons for years too. And I KNOW it's a great movie...I just need to get on with it and watch it. Great review :)

    1. Seriously?! Anyway, you really need to watch this because it's great. I'm hating myself so much for putting it off for such a long time