It’s unfortunate that the debate about whether Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty is pro or anti-torture came to fore before the film went into wide release, as it may paint the film as something it’s not. Regardless if the film is true or “true,” the movie is done as a procedural, and though torture is shown, that’s not what the film is about. Zero Dark Thirty is a breathtaking accomplishment, as Bigelow manages to make this nearly three hour movies one of the most tense and engaging stories of something where the results of their findings should be obvious to the viewer.

The Players:

  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Writers: Mark Boal
  • Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini
  • Music by: Alexandre Desplat
  • Cinematography by: Greig Fraser

The Plot:

Maya (Chastain) is brought in to help hunt and kill Osama Bin Laden during the Bush administration when torture is the default setting for interrogations. Though she and her team have been following leads, nothing much has been coming of their work, until Maya finds out about a courier. After years, this courier lead pays off when new information surfaces, and Maya begins to put the pieces together on the location of Osama Bin Laden’s compound. When all the pieces fall into place, the military is sent in.

The Good:

  • Making the Inevitable Gripping: Unless you’re exceptionally ignorant, you know that Osama Bin Laden order the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, and that bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. the triumph of Zero Dark Thirty is that it’s a two hour and thirty seven minute story about how all the pieces came together to finally catch and kill Bin Laden. And though some of those pieces might be somewhat exaggerated or made slightly more cinematic, it never feels like Bulls–. Even if this isn’t exactly what happened, that almost makes the film more amazing.
  • On the Ground: On of the biggest problems with the “Is the film pro- or anti-torture” is that the film shows what Americans did in the wake of 9/11. They waterboarded and used Enhanced Interrogation Techniques that are basically torture. But the film doesn’t tell you this is terrible, it only shows you how terribly they treated those suspected of involvement with the 9/11 attacks. Some may think that those tortured deserved it, but what the film shows and suggests is partly how the viewer reads the movie, and you have any empathy, it seems impossible to consider the film pro-torture.
  • Jessica Chastain: In many ways Chastain’s Maya is as much as cipher as the character that Ben Affleck plays in Argo, but because she’s a woman working a field dominated by men, it gives her performance and the character an additional layer that makes her fascinating to watch. When she reveals a more feminine side (which happens briefly, and not very often), you can see that part of her persona, how she carries herself, why she swears like a sailor, has more to do with existing in that world than who she is. And that’s what makes it one of the best performances of the year.

The So-So:

  • The Debate: There is already a discussion about the movie that doesn’t have as much to do with the movie as the politics of those critiquing it. It’s hard to say if the film is a masterpiece, though Bigelow’s needle sharp direction definitely puts it in contention, but now a lot of people are going to enter into the film and not see it for what it is, which is a great portrait of the ups and downs of the hunt for Bin Laden.  This is a layered measured film that doesn’t go for any rah-rah patriotism. Instead it shows how information came together eventually because of the dogged work of at least one woman.


Zero Dark Thirty is a great procedural, and time will tell if it’s a great film period. But it deserves to be in the same conversation with All the Presidents Men, Memories of Murder and Zodiac as one of the most gripping and intense procedurals of all time.



Zero Dark Thirty hits limited screens December 19, and will expand on January 11.