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Zero Dark Thirty Film Review: Sneakily Powerful

Jessica Chastain stands in the desert with black sunglasses and wearing a black shirt, with a missile behind her, in the film Zero Dark Thirty

Thanks to sharp directing and a strong lead performance, Zero Dark Thirty successfully captures the exhausting nature of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Genre: Drama, Thriller, History
Run Time: 157′
US Release: December 10, 2012
UK Release: January 25, 2013
Where to watch: on digital & VOD

Zero Dark Thirty was released in 2012, one year after the death of Osama bin Laden that the film portrays, which itself happened thirteen years ago, and now I feel old. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film is a dramatization of the long manhunt for Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as the military raid of his hideout.

The depiction revolves around Maya (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, Molly’s Game), a fictional CIA analyst, with a supporting cast including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt.

Some people may think that the search for the world’s most wanted man at the time would be filled with riveting investigations, brutal acts of violence, and powerful emotions that translate extremely naturally to cinema. But while Zero Dark Thirty definitely contains those elements in certain places, that’s not a proper representation of what you’re getting when you sit down to watch it. A lot of the film is a complex, convoluted series of information being exchanged, places being visited, constant, drawn-out surveillance sessions, and Maya’s navigation through the rigid system she’s working within. And along the way, there’s not that much in terms of a compelling character study or psychological analysis.

In almost any other movie, this would drag the entire experience down and make me feel like a dirty un-American for being bored by such an important story. And then I’d be somewhat proud of that feeling because screw rampant patriotism. But in Zero Dark Thirty, these aren’t bugs; they’re features. Through her unexpected vision for the film’s events, Bigelow accomplishes something that I rarely see done successfully in movies: it uses its tedium to its advantage. Yes, Zero Dark Thirty suffers from a story that’s a bit too long, scattered, and cold … but that also works in its favor, because it makes you feel how maddeningly long, scattered, and cold the near-decade-long search for bin Laden must have been.

With how excessively dramatized and exaggerated a lot of investigational stories often are, especially ones with the military involved, I have a strong feeling that we miss out on a lot of the soul-crushing routine procedures and many frustrating delays that probably constitute most of these phenomena. I say this as someone with no means of knowing that, but it wasn’t until I saw Zero Dark Thirty that it really hit me how likely it is. And if I made the film sound like a smartly conceived but still dull watch, I’m pleased to say that, miraculously, it pulls this kind of story off without ever outright boring me.

A red haired woman with a ponytail leans against a wall next to a framed US flag in the film Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Bigelow’s direction never lets up on the intensity, whether we’re out on the field or in an investigational meeting. Though the story jumps around a lot, it does so in a way that still keeps you in the headspace of Maya in particular. Jessica Chastain carries a lot of the movie and brings so much more out of her character than what’s written on the page. Maya starts out a bit on the timid side as she witnesses and is forced to partake in the most brutal parts of her job, but you clearly see how quickly the manhunt for bin Laden brings out her ferocity, fury, and singular determination to get the job done.

Nowhere is this exemplified better than in her final scene. I’m so, so sorry for this, but I have to give away a huge spoiler here: Osama bin Laden is killed, meaning Maya’s mission is a success. But the big emotional punch comes afterwards in a brief, mostly silent moment where it’s clear that she doesn’t even know how to process her victory. Finding this man was her entire life for nearly a decade, and the film’s final shot makes it painfully clear that she doesn’t know what her life is now that she’s done. It’s a small moment, but it powerfully drives home how all-encompassing her mission was and why its exhaustively long-winded nature had to be portrayed in the way it was.

We do get to see the manhunt itself, and it’s absolutely worth the long buildup. It’s tense, unpleasant, and stunningly shot with both an epic and claustrophobic quality. It’s one of the best-looking nighttime action sequences I’ve ever seen … and sure enough, I found out that Greg Fraser himself, of The Batman and Dune fame, was the DP here. This guy knows how to make dark sequences look imposing yet clear. I also love how there’s almost no fanfare during or after the deed, which reflects how a lot of people probably felt when hearing the news of bin Laden’s death.

And look, if you want to debate the film’s stance on torture and whether this is all one big American propaganda piece, you go right ahead. I feel that Zero Dark Thirty is pretty objective in how the story is told (again, maybe even to a fault, with how emotionally distant it is), and I don’t think it glorifies or vilifies American systems, values, or methods. But I also don’t have enough knowledge or, quite frankly, strong emotions to take a stance on the issue, so I’m not going to jump into those messy, messy waters. If I wanted to start an argument, I’d engage with literally anything on Twitter.

Zero Dark Thirty: Trailer (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

While many other films have bored me to tears with the kind of scattershot, cold storytelling that Zero Dark Thirty utilizes, it manages to wield that double-edged sword successfully as a consistently investing watch thanks to Bigelow’s directing, Chastain’s performance, how well it captures the draining nature of its mission, and how it aesthetically and emotionally pays everything off. I don’t consider the film some grand, patriotic celebration, but rather a harsh, insightful portrayal of how much work, effort, and dehumanization went into the real-life search. It’s not one of the best films of the 2010s or anything, but it’s definitely one of the most impressive for how well it achieves its difficult aspirations.

Get it on Apple TV

Zero Dark Thirty is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

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