Zero Dark Thirty

By Kathryn Schroeder
Released: January 11, 2013
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For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty reunites the Oscar winning team of director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer0producer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) for the story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man.
Film Review
Zero Dark Thirty touts itself as being the story about "the greatest manhunt in history." For American citizens this statement may be true, given the pain and suffering Osama bin Laden caused the American people on September 11, 2001, and for years afterwards. For the rest of the world he joins a long list of terrorists, evil dictators, deranged psychopaths, and the like who have caused harm to a people, or persons. Zero Dark Thirty does not need to promote itself, people will see it because of their curiosity--and the desire to know what went on behind the scenes over the course of ten years while the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other government agencies, searched for the one man whom they held responsible for an inexplicably brutal attack on U.S. soil.

What is Zero Dark Thirty about, exactly? Well, its complicated. Based on true events, and from firsthand accounts by the CIA agents involved, the movie sets itself up very much like a docudrama. Characterization is passed over and the viewer forced to merely follow along procedurally with the characters; namely, Jessica Chastain's Maya. She is the anchor of the entire film, the one person you are given to carry you through the story but if you are looking for background on her, or introspection in any form you will be disappointed. There is not a secondary storyline featuring a love interest, nor should there have been. While there are a couple moments where we learn about Maya's life, or lack thereof outside of the CIA, she is always kept at a distance. This is not "her" story but the story about how "she and others" worked to find Osama Bin Laden. Again, Zero Dark Thirty is not a character piece, unless you consider an investigation a character--and you should in this case. Recent rumors have surfaced that Maya was in fact a man in real life, only adding fuel that watching a woman in a room performing torture, or undergoing the stress of such an investigation makes for better movie watching in that women are more emotional and empathetic characters. Maya receives no empathy from the viewer, and she may as well be a man as it makes no difference to how you feel towards the character. You do, however, have to question the way in which Zero Dark Thirty paints her as the only believer as to where Osama Bin Laden was hiding. That choice by screenwriter Mark Boal, based on his insider intelligence or smart storytelling, does help keep the movie grounded--a dozen CIA agents all fighting for the needed materials to catch Osama Bin Laden would have bogged down the script immensely.

For the majority of Zero Dark Thirty you are taken into the investigation, from the point where Maya arrives in Pakistan. The film actually begins with a black screen, and the recorded voices of the victims of September 11th: the men and women of the media, the 911 operators, or emergency personnel that were there that tragic day in New York City. For what feels like hours you sit in the dark listening to their pleas for help, the shocked reactions as the second plane hits the tower, and the unforgettable sound of silence when a phone line goes dead on a 911 operator. The horror of the morning of September 11, 2001 comes rushing back to you, and the emotions. Just as quickly they are pushed aside and Zero Dark Thirty's plot begins; and in Zero Dark Thirty there isn't room for emotions.

Chronicling the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is not an easy task, and the more docudrama approach by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal does feel appropriate after some consideration. The movie may not be moving because of the characters involved, but it is because of the understanding you feel towards the circumstances. The search for information, sources, and the unflinching hope in finding Osama bin Laden by Maya is affecting. It also happens to make for a very cold film that can be hard to fully envelope yourself into--the suspension of disbelief that is accustomed to moviemaking does not happen in Zero Dark is all very real, very honest, and very topical. The coldness in tone changes drastically during the final act, when Bin Laden's compound is breached. Suddenly a wealth of emotions hits you, your gaze is unwavering, and the suspense thick in the air. Even knowing how the story ends doesn't change the immense power of the final minutes. Kathryn Bigelow has not made the greatest movie ever told with Zero Dark Thirty, nor has Mark Boal written the strongest script, but they have created a very good film that is sure to get people talking. Movies that promote discussions on hard topics, those that provoke questions of morality, justice, and government politics, are important--even if it all ends up being based on gregariously false information or the real truth, neither of which we will never know unless the U.S. Senate has their way [Source: New York Times].
The most difficult part of Zero Dark Thirty is not watching the scenes of torture, it is accepting that the film is not going to be your average moviegoing experience full of empathy, connecting with characters, or much depth in any form. Screenwriter Mark Boal took a documentary approach to the script, and the entire first act and most of the second is difficult to connect with because its all information, logistics, and theory. [This may be because the script was started before Osama bin Laden was found and killed, resulting in an obvious re-write very quickly before shooting began.] There are moments when Maya reacts to situations with emotion; she is uncomfortable during torture scenes, frustrated with sources, or shocked at the entirety of the investigation. But these are unimportant, until the end of the film when the actual suspense and emotional draw occurs. This is when Seal Team Six appears on the scene, and Boal has written one of the best on-screen depictions of Marine's, ever. They are without the "Oooh-Rah" shoot'em up for fun personalities we see far too often in military movies. These men are serious, opinionated on the mission and the possibility of casualties and the risk involved for their lives. It is a very mature depiction of a group of Marines who are in fact human, intelligent, and aware that what they are doing is not fun and games. Boal made the right decision on this matter, and while you never feel anything more than gratitude for what the men achieve, you respect the manner in which they are presented and how they carried themselves. Especially when information becomes more important than glorifying the kill.

A fault or achievement, depending on how you reconcile it in your own mind (I count it as a fault) is that the script for Zero Dark Thirty assumes that the viewer has a high level of knowledge about the search for Osama bin Laden, and Middle Eastern politics in general. Threatening a Pakistani man that he will be sent to Israel if he does not provide the CIA with information does not seem like a horrifying idea, unless you are from Pakistan. Zero Dark Thirty is full of instances like this; scenes and dialogue that require you to actually know more than the story has provided. Therefore, it assumes its viewer is far less ignorant than they may be--let's be honest, a vast majority of Americans do not keep up to date on World politics, or Middle Eastern politics specifically. This can be attributed to the American Media, who although they say do not censor their information clearly do on a daily basis.

While I commend Mark Boal for forcing a viewer to search deeper for knowledge after seeing Zero Dark Thirty in order to understand more of what was covered in the film, at the same time it can cause a less enjoyable viewing experience. It will, undoubtedly, alienate a great deal of people because without knowing a greater wealth of knowledge on the subject you are left with very little to punctuate and keep your attention throughout the first half of the film. On the other hand, Zero Dark Thirty does systematically detail events over the many years of investigation. A terrorist attack that occurred in Khobar, Saudi Arabia in 2004, killing innocent people, was one instance where I myself could not recall ever hearing about it on the news or reading it online, anywhere. A movie that makes you think, encourages you to look for more information is a great thing, and Zero Dark Thirty does just that--if only it had more to the story than facts and names and places to try and keep you invested until the grand finale.

The finale is grand, in a very slow methodic suspenseful sense. Everyone knows the outcome, but the details remain hidden until you see them in action on screen. Being privy to how it happened, although it is under great scrutiny right now from politicians and the facts under investigation from the entire film, you are placed right in the middle of the action. The action itself is not entirely exciting, but the suspense director Kathryn Bigelow creates is suffocating.
Action Sequences
Zero Dark Thirty is not an action movie. It does have explosions, shooting, suspense filled moments dealing with suicide bombers, and a couple well-directed shocking moments of terror. But I repeat, it is not an action movie in the usual sense of the word, or genre. When Seal Team Six arrives there is the assault on Osama bin Laden's hiding place that includes fancy Marine tactics, gunfire, and methodical planning. The scene is mild in its execution, and not done for the exploitative possibilities of combat. How they get Osama to peek his head out of his fortress of a room will actually provoke a bit of laughter.

Zero Dark Thirty may not be an action movie but there is one thing everyone is, and will be, talking about...the scenes of torture.

A great deal of controversy has arisen over the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. On a personal level, it was no more disturbing than watching a woman beaten in Act of Valor or imagining being buried alive in Buried. The shocking part is that it may in fact have happened in real life, and with the permission of the United States government. Torture is not a proven method for reliable information. Think about it, if you were being beaten, hung up by your arms, or locked in a box for days wouldn't you say anything to be set free? For most of us, the answer would be yes. That is the predicament you face in Zero Dark Thirty; whether you choose to believe torture is justifiable under the circumstances of the narrative or whether other methods could provide the same results, and possibly more reliable intelligence. It's a moral choice, and watching the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, that involve varying methods but a shocking lack of blood, will undoubtedly affect different people in very different ways. I for one felt a greater disgust for the use of a dog collar than I did over the water boarding--and there is a good amount of water boarding.

Whatever your beliefs are on torture you will find yourself questioning them when the Obama administration takes office and torture is no longer allowed towards detainees. When information dries up, the leads go cold, and lawyers stop terrorists or their known associates from having to share any information, you begin to reconsider torture as an acceptable method. Zero Dark Thirty does not take a stance on whether torture should be allowable or not, but it definitely questions the decisions by politicians on the matter and does not condone or defend the Bush administration nor does it applaud the Obama administration's abolishment of the practice. The torture also does not lead one to believe that is how Osama bin Laden was caught, but it definitely played a role. For every four lie's there is a truth, and it is the CIA agents who learn to find truth. It is because of both the Bush and Obama Administrations that Osama bin Laden was found, and killed, and the way in which we got there at the end of the film...meaningless.

Drama, Thriller, Action
Release Date
January 11, 2013
MPAA Rating
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Music Score
Auteur Consideration