Zero Dark Thirty Review

Zero Dark Thirty (or ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About Torture, But Were Too Afraid To Ask’) is the latest by Academy Award winning director, Kathryn Bigelow who has returned to the big screen with her follow up to The Hurt Locker. It has been a note of contention for the past few years whether Bigelow won the award for her war thriller because she was is a woman (note Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter), because The Hurt Locker was nominated the same year as her ex-husband’s Avatar, because it was a contemporary war film or (and the most simple answer being) she is a good filmmaker, who (surprisingly) makes good films. As an audience member or critic, very few of us want to admit the last option is a viable one – it’s much more fun to beat the winners down or come up with other reasons why they were chosen, but I can honestly admit, hand on heart that after watching Zero Dark Thirty, all my suspicions were confirmed – I am ready to admit it *takes deep breath* – Kathryn Bigelow is a damn good filmmaker.

Right, now that I have gotten that out of the way, how about we get onto brass tax? Zero Dark Thirty is based upon one of the most followed stories of the past two decades; in reality it has affected thousands, if not millions around the globe and is one of the greatest victories in recent American history. I am talking about the tracking down, capturing and killing of terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, the man who was responsible for changing American history and so many lives in September 2011.

Mark Boal’s script, along with the work of Bigelow, is telling the story of greatest manhunt in history in a fictionalised telling of the operation, which lead to Bin Laden.

We start in 2003 where Maya (Jessica Chastain giving one of the performances of the year), a CIA officer, has spent her entire career thus far focusing solely on intelligence related to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 11th attacks. Maya finds herself reassigned to work with a fellow officer at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. During the first months of her assignment, she often visits a black site for ongoing interrogation of Ammar, a detainee with links to several Saudi terrorists. Through torture and humiliation, Ammar is tricked into divulging information that an old acquaintance using the alias ‘Abu Ahmed’ is working as a personal courier for bin Laden. 

Thus, this is where the first part of the film takes us. As we move around Pakistan with Maya, Bigelow is extremely careful to not promote nor take away from the power of the characters surroundings. When we visit the city, we see it through the eyes of an observer rather than a stubborn American who is out for blood. Whilst trying to gain the balance of showing the audience, these foreign lands, Bigelow doesn’t explore too often the world around her and instead opts for rather claustrophobic surroundings where we get to know the characters involved more intimately. Rather than have them react to the world they live in, the characters cause events to happen. Especially during moments of torture, Bigelow doesn’t promote or glamourise these methods. What she is careful to do is not judge the characters either for what they are doing – at the end of the day, the boys are doing their jobs but it’s at what cost that we are constantly questioning their methods. Maya, visibly is wary of these methods and finds them difficult to comprehend at the start but as the film goes on, she learns that this is the only way to get the that end point where she needs to be.

Taking a moment to look at Zero Dark Thirty as a whole piece of work – the film seems to have arrived at a point where we openly have a dialogue surrounding terrorism and it’s downfall. As an audience we are happy to admit the good guys can win in the story, and it no longer looks fake because ultimately it happened in reality. What I did take away from this film, and continue to ponder over is the feeling of an extended (and with much more money) episode of Homeland. This of course is not a negative, it has fast become a most popular shows on both sides of the Atlantic, winning awards galore both for the show and it’s talent. But at the same time, I was finding it a little difficult to get Maya away from Carrie (Claire Danes’ bi-polar obsessed character) because both women become dangerously obsessed with finding the ‘baddie’. But whilst Homeland serialises the issues, and cuts them up into nice little chunks for the audience to digest each week, waiting on the end of their seat for the next episode, Zero Dark Thirty pounds them home, punch by punch, scene by scene. Maya becomes locked in a battle with everyone around her because she knows that she is moving in the right direction.

Zero Dark Thirty also observes a very interesting movement we are currently having with powerful women. I am pretty sure that not even ten years ago, we would have a terrorist thriller, which finds itself relying upon a woman to do the work. Instead, traditionally, women were seducers, traitors, lovers, wives and sometimes the (stay in the office) boss but not in recent memory (Homeland aside) is a tough woman, not sexualised but instead running against all the odds in a foreign part of the world to get the work done. This is where Jessica Chastain comes in; she is beautiful and there is no denying that but her performance as Maya blows every tough man performance out of the water. She is a no bullshitting bitch, who intends to find her goal and when she gets there, that will be the end but not before then. She is thrilling, and powerful.

For me, the last 45 minutes were some of the most suspenseful and incredible filmmaking I have seen in ages. Even though, the whole way through, you are telling yourself, I know how the mission ends – I saw it on the news and I know they got Bin Laden because that was how this film was made, you keep constantly questioning whether they are going to do it. Is the final mission going to work and are they going to get him, is he even in the house? It takes a strong filmmaker to be able to make me question reality but Bigelow does so, and does so tactfully and beautifully. Everything from the explosions, to the helicopters, to chases and gunshots has certainly got a very talented woman’s touch on it. The film isn’t violent, and it doesn’t condone violence either; everything (apparently) is necessary and needed to achieve the final goal. The sound was great and all consuming in the cinema, making you feel like you were actually deep in the desert with the soldiers.

Although the film is long, you don’t clock watch at all because you are constantly on the edge of your seat, perhaps for different reasons. You can sit in awe at the wonderful filmmaking, the thrilling story and the top class acting and writing from all involved. Zero Dark Thirty is a great start to the film year and sure to be a highlight during the Award season. Highly recommended, this classy, wonderful film will be a record for years to come.

About The Author

Ollie.Charles
Reviews Editor, Contributor and Festival Coordinator

Ollie has written for Front Row Reviews pretty much since its inception about seven years ago whilst still studying Film & Television. Since then, he was trust into the world of independent film distribution and has recently started working with Picturehouse Entertainment in their Marketing Department. Having written and produced two radio series, he is moving hoping to (one day) write a web series/short film/feature (delete as appropriate ;)). His favourite director is David Lynch (which makes him make a lot of sense!) and his favourite films are The Hours, Mulholland Drive, Volver, Blade Runner and Bridget Jones Diary.

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