Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)


Zero Dark Thirty is a masterwork of suspense and drama. Director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, and composer Alexandre Desplat combine their superpowers impressive talents to create this darkly compelling film. As the heart of the story, Jessica Chastain does a spectacular job as the CIA agent whose singular focus leads to the capture and execution of the mastermind of 9/11.

The film opens with a reminder of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Then we see a torture scene, two years after the attack. “I own you, Ammar,” a CIA agent, Dan (Jason Clarke), flatly informs the bound detainee (Reda Kateb). “When you tell a lie, I hurt you.” Dan proceeds to do so while Maya (Chastain) watches. The “money-man” with ties to the Saudi Group eventually breaks, and gives Maya the clue that she'll spend the rest of the film chasing: the existence of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted courier. After reviewing torture footage, and personally overseeing sessions where the prisoners describe the same man, Maya becomes convinced that the courier holds the key to finding bin Laden.

Maya faces two obstacles in her search: one, no one knows the exact location of the courier, and two, she does not have the full support of her superiors. At one point, she has to literally yell at her station chief in Pakistan (Kyle Chandler) to get the resources she needs. Maya makes finding the courier her entire life, to the extent that one of her fellow agents (Elizabeth Bennet Jennifer Ehle) gently tries to talk her into getting an actual life. But Maya is the job. She is the search. She throws everything into her work, against the backdrop of terrorist cells, espionage networks, and ordinary people just trying to get from one day to the next.

Everyone gives a bravura performance, but Chastain’s work here is so engaging that the film becomes an experience in immersion. We’re right there with Maya as she grimly watches video after video of men being tortured. We’re shouting beside her as she threatens her boss for not giving in to her personnel requests. We’re down there on the floor with her as she mourns the loss of lives from acts of terror. We’re itching to jump in and convince the CIA chief (James Gandolfini) that bin Laden really is in that compound, he really is, send in a team already!

I’m sure part of that comes from the fact that we know how it ends. We know Maya succeeded. We know she was right all along, that bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad. But Bigelow is such an amazing director that the final act, the raid on the compound, is thirty minutes of sheer tension. We know how the raid ends, but we didn’t know that it took so long, that something major went wrong, or that there were so many children in there. Personally, I was almost hyperventilating as the cinematography switched back and forth between first-person night-vision views and wider third-person shots. I was so rapt that I didn’t even notice the music during that scene, but Fiancé assures me it was masterful.

The film closes with a beautiful, perfect shot. It reminds us of Maya’s humanity—that mix of steely determination, no-nonsense professionalism, and unexpected vulnerability. Zero Dark Thirty kills it. Kills it.
Go watch it.

Incidentally, “zero dark thirty” is a military term that stands for thirty minutes after midnight. You’re welcome. Now go watch it.