Zero Dark Thirty Review

By: Forest Langhorne

On May 2nd, 2011, around 10pm, President Obama interrupted scheduled programming to make a surprise national address. In his address, President Obama announced that an authorized raid into Pakistani territory had resulted in the death of the infamous terrorist Osama bin Laden. This event marked the start of a race to see which Hollywood studio could successfully write a movie about it.

Zero Dark Thirty, which was released on January 11, is the definite winner of that race.  Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Kyle Chandler, Zero Dark Thirty portrays the ten year struggle of a team of CIA operatives operating out of Pakistan to hunt down and kill Al-Qaeda leaders.

The film begins by introducing two of the most important characters in the movie: the novice CIA field operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) and the experienced operative turned professional interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke), who meet each other  while Dan is performing an “enhanced interrogation” for Maya’s benefit.  As Maya climbs up the bureaucratic ladder and learns the ropes of the terrorist hunting business, she stumbles onto a lead that comes to take over her life: the mysterious courier Abu Ahmed who some prisoners claim is the personal courier to bin Laden.

Later, Maya is able to identify and locate the courier she has spent the last 9 years of her life looking for, tracing him to an isolated, walled compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Maya is able to convince her superiors, including her former station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), that bin Laden is hiding there.

Zero Dark Thirty is without argument one of the top three films of the year, up there with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Ben Affleck’s Argo. Jessica Chastain delivers an amazing performance, and director Kathryn Bigelow possibly outdoes her Iraq War classic The Hurt Locker, which won her an Oscar back in 2009. Through her use of past events, timing, and cinematography, Bigelow is able to turn a movie that everyone knows the ending to into a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire movie. Bigelow also does a fantastic job of telling not just the story of finding bin Laden, but also of giving this faceless struggle a deeply human element which does more than any other part of the movie to reel the viewer in. Chastain does a great job showcasing this personal side.  The interaction between her and Chandler, and later CIA headquarters as they fight over what leads gain precedence, is in my opinion one of the most defining parts of the film, and Chastain portrays the emotions of her character in a way nobody except Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln has done this year.

Another part of the film that really contributed to its story throughout the movie is the dark backdrop throughout the film: the role of torture in the fight against terrorism. Multiple scenes in the movie depict prisoners being tortured as Maya, Dan, and her colleagues fight to gain useful intelligence.  While many people have claimed that this allegedly pro-torture stance detracts from this film, I think it adds to it. By giving the film moral questions such as “Is torture okay in the defense of lives?” and “Is detracting from a moral cause needed to win?” Bigelow turns what would normally be a good manhunt thriller into an entertaining intellectual exercise that forces the viewer to not just watch, but think about what the movie means. Doing this transformed Zero Dark Thirty from a standard action-suspense film into something much more: a drama that suggests ideas and then lets you think about them.

Zero Dark Thirty blew away all my expectations.  I went in to the theatre expecting a well executed but stereotypical thriller that wouldn’t surprise me, and what I got was wildly different.  The movie I watched  was a suspenseful, film-of-the-year drama that kept me on the edge of my seat and made me think the whole way through. Chastain’s career high performance and Bigelow’s personal touch, along with the intellectual exercise that came from the the torture scenes, kept me enraptured the entire film. Jessica Chastain and Kathryn Bigelow have given us a film that is not only one of the best films of the year, but will go on to make the American public think again about the role of torture in the war on terror.