Zero Dark Thirty


Unless you have been under a rock for the last 12 years  you will know the story of the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11/01, Al Qaeda, the “War on Terror” and the attack on a Pakistani compound in 2011 that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden; a poster boy for global Islamic Extremism. If you didn’t know any of this…spoiler alert, because that is what Zero Dark Thirty is about; all 157 minutes of it.

First off, bravo Kathryn Bigelow. Thank you for not prologuing your movie with the footage of 9/11 we’ve all endured since 2001. The tone set in this movie is one of complete objectivity; a fact that may lose some of the audience as, sometimes, the pacing is almost as arduous as the hunt for Bin Laden himself. Instead, the intro delivers a black screen with an audio snippet from an emergency call on the day of the attacks. There is no stars and stripes, no red white and blue. It’s just a black screen and crackly audio serving as a small reminder that the events on that day in September are the reason we are watching this feature film 12 years later.

Stylistically Bigelow deploys her favoured handheld camera during key scenes of action and dialogue. This creates a visceral, almost fly-on-the-wall documentary aesthetic, which could have been problematic if Bigelow had an agenda (she doesn’t). There have been calls certain scenes verge on the glorification of torture, however I didn’t feel this at all. The treatment is physically and mentally brutal but the movie never dwells on the pain inflicted, and we are not on the side of the interrogators.

The movie is littered with great performers, however Jessica Chastain steals the show. Her character is an allegory for the search for Osama Bin Laden and the mental anguish suffered by many people across the globe. She becomes consumed by her mission and relies on luck as well as skill to achieve her goal; to find and kill Bin Laden. In the process we see all of the key points of the War on Terror and indirect attacks as a result; 7/7 bombings on the London transport system are shown, which were very close to home.

Zero Dark Thirty won an Academy Award for Sound Editing, however I think it should have also won for Film Editing instead of Argo. Somehow every conversation – and there are a LOT of conversations – is interesting to watch. The amount of different camera angles cut together kept everything flowing exceptionally well.

The final scene deals with the attack on Bin Laden’s compound. While the filmmakers could have taken a Die Hard-style, balls-out action style, this wouldn’t have been realistic. It’s actually a very quiet scene when you consider the subject matter. There is sporadic shouting and some rounds being fired, but it’s grippingly quiet.

The strange thing about Zero Dark Thirty is that it deals with a narrative that we have all been living for the past decade yet it is still interesting. We’ve all seen the documentaries, read the news articles and blog posts, and 9/11 has almost certainly informed my upbringing (especially living in London). It’s testament to Bigelow’s style that she has constructed a movie that is still compelling, despite being heavy on dialogue and plot points we already know. It’s won’t be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty.

And no, it’s not just an extended episode of Homeland.


7 thoughts on “Zero Dark Thirty

  1. I’ll probably always look up on Zero Dark Thirty with kind eyes, as it’s the first film I reviewed on WordPress. A good review of it certainly, but since I’ve not looked upon it with the same light I did when I first saw it. Think it stands for a kind of blind unfocused patriotism. One that’s a bit misplaced at times.

    1. Do you think so? I didn’t get that from it personally. There was no undertones ‘Murica, fuck yeah’ in there for me. There were points that they state how they want to kill BL, but I felt it was more focused on cinematic plot points with no focus on the lives of Westerners as more valuable than the Middle Eastern/Asians.
      Thanks for the comment by the way!

      1. I guess, but the thing is, the political context is always avoidable, and the fact the script avoids it makes me think it’s already there. That they’re trying to mask it? Regardless it’s always going to be the context of why.

      2. According to Bigelow the movie was originally about the failure to find OBL. They rushed out a different final draft when they found out a out the attack on the compound, which leads me to believe the movie has no agenda. The political context is always going to be there, and some people can read it knowing the political implications of the final moments of OBL’s life, but I think Bigelow has managed to stay as objective as possible.

  2. Nice review. I enjoyed ZDT but thought it had its problems. It still struck me as a bit of propaganda; maybe not quite as much as it could have, but it still had that feel to me. It almost felt as if we were being reminded why the ‘war on terror’ was taking place so it could be justified. Perhaps that’s just my own misgivings about the whole thing coming through and colouring the experience. I also didn’t think Jessica Chastain was anything special. I though she was alright but barely worth her Oscar nomination. That said, I still did find the film really engaging and thought it was brilliantly made.

    1. The thing is the movie was being made before OBL got killed, and it was originally about the failure to find him. I think they changed it to fit the true narrative, so maybe it’s a misgiving of what occurred rather than the intentions of the filmmakers. I didn’t feel any propaganda intentions myself!

  3. It seems we felt very similarly about this movie. I’ve had conversations with people who felt it was jingoistic, American flag waving and most of the time that point of view is born from general political views on the US rather than the film being politically biased. While Bigelow is a staunch Democrat I think she understood the importance of writing and creating a film that said “here you go, there are the facts, make of that what you will”. Great review, If you’re interested I wrote somewhat of a rambling review of ZDT back in Feb

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