While not strictly historically accurate, Zero Dark Thirty is an incredibly well made film with great performances and a through-line of tension that doesn’t let up until the boots are off the ground and the final credits roll.
A fictionalized account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden starting from 9/11 to the ultimate killing of the terrorist mastermind, Zero Dark Thirty follows Maya (Jessica Chastain) a CIA analyst who’s only drive in life is to find Bin Laden as she tries to piece evidence on a particular Al Qeada courier in the hopes that he would lead her to Osama Bin Laden. Along the way she teams with Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA interrogator who eventually loses his stomach for torture and a collection of other CIA operatives as they try to find anything at all that will lead them to find their target. Given it is loosely based on real events, saying that the film ends with the raid on Bin Laden’s compound and his ultimate death is not a spoiler. Those 20 minutes that deal with the raid are probably the best in the film and is some of the year’s best film making.
Zero Dark Thirty is a difficult movie to review given some of the details in the film and how the film presents the use and results of torture however, while it is based upon true events, it is still a fictionalized account of events, like most movies, and as such I will not get into political debate here nor will I pass political judgement on events depicted. Suffice it to say, the film suggests that torture provided actionable information that led to finding Bin Laden and that point is refuted by many people involved in the events themselves. It is not my job to pass judgement on this and I will not. My job is to review the quality of the film and that is what I will do as objectively as I possibly can.
Zero Dark Thirty feels like two different movies, partially due to length but also to tone. The early part of the film deals very heavily with detainee interrogations and the efforts of the CIA to try to piece together evidence based on this. It shows false leads and political maneuvering and shows what happens when the wrong people are trusted. The interrogations themselves are difficult to watch and even amidst the horrifying nature of these scenes, the film does a bit to try to humanize all of the characters on either side of the conflict.
The latter half of the movie picks up speed a bit as Maya finds that one of her old theories may prove to be true and things become more about surveillance and board room negotiations and analysis. This ultimately leads up to sending Seal Team 6 in to kill Bin Laden. The effectiveness with which director Kathryn Bigelow switches tone and intensity here is remarkable and the movie slides effortlessly from one to the other.
While tone shifts a bit depending on location and political climate throughout the film, there is always an undercurrent of tension punctuated by occasional violence that underscores just how serious the situation continues to be. Data collection becomes a dangerous business when you are dealing with terrorists and there is never a moment in which anyone feels particularly safe. This effective use of tension should come as no surprise to anyone who saw Bigelow’s previous film the Hurt Locker, which was a master class in onscreen tension building. Zero Dark Thirty is helped along by having more of a story to tell and a much larger canvass to work against. Bigelow has made many different types of films in her career but I think this kind of film is her niche and this material finds her sweet spot.
The performances are universally strong from a cast that is impressively expansive. From Mark Strong to Mark Duplass and Chris Pratt to James Gandolfini, even the smaller roles are filled with terrific actors doing terrific work. Jason Clarke is particularly effective and even if you find what Dan does despicable, Clarke portrays him in a compelling way and it is difficult not to enjoy the performance. Chastain is effective as Maya who is the one constant in the movie as the characters change and shift around her. She has a bit of a thankless job in that people who are this driven often don’t have a lot of other meat to them…she is all intensity and drive but Chastain manages to do it without coming off like a robot. I personally really enjoyed Mark Strong and Mark Duplass’s performances but I am a fan of both of them so I am a bit biased. But personal preference aside, by casting such great people even in small roles means that there is no weak link in the performance chain and that really helps bolster the drama quite a bit.
The movie is around two hours and 40 minutes and it feels like it. As they were gearing up to go on the raid, I thought ‘jesus this at least another 20 minutes’ but then the raid was amazing and compelling. You will feel the length but the quality of what you are watching makes you not care so much. There could have been some tightening here or there to make the pace flow better but in general even when it feels long it is still an engaging and compelling film.
Conclusion [9.5 out of 10]
Again, I am not going to get into political issues for this film and my score does not necessarily reflect how I feel about some issues in the film. That being said, it is enormously well made and is engaging as a thriller and a procedural and delivers a compelling film. If you are sensitive to torture or intense violence then you may not have the stomach for the film as it is unflinching in its depiction of these scenes. Taken as a dramatization of real events, the film is pretty incredible. Facts are out there if you want to read more on the events depicted here but in terms of the film itself it is impossible not to recommend for fans of this sort of material. It is up to you to decide how you feel about what this movie has to say and, in a way, that is what films are for.