Film review: Zero Dark Thirty

Best picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty compels, repulses, and carries out its mission to hold audiences captive through the well-known ending. (Sony Pictures) Best picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty compels, repulses, and carries out its mission to hold audiences captive through the well-known ending. (Sony Pictures)

Mission accomplished: Kathryn Bigelow directs a gripping insight into the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty

Forget the brouhaha about Zero Dark Thirty’s politics. Any movie that can present events in which the audience knows the outcome and still has the audience holding its breath in anticipation succeeds. Director Kathryn Bigelow has delivered a tense, well-paced masterpiece. 

Back to the brouhaha. There’s been much hand-wringing over Zero Dark Thirty’s purported approval of torture. I don’t see it. The movie’s narrative line is straightforward: The story picks up on Sept. 11, 2001, and concludes with the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Everything that happens in between—suicide bombings, “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture), thousands of leads followed—happens in between. In other words, the CIA’s use of torture is part of the story, whether we like it or not.

Those terror scenes are hard to watch, and Bigelow’s mastery in setting tone is on full display. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young CIA operative with one goal: Find and kill Osama bin Laden. But even she isn’t quite prepared for what she encounters.

Moments after she arrives at a CIA black site, the agent in charge, Dan (Jason Clarke), is about to waterboard a detainee. Maya is clearly repulsed by what she sees. Then Dan asks her to fill a bucket with water, and she does.

So she’s in it, too, and so are we. Whether Bigelow intends to implicate the audience as being complicit in torture is hard to say (my guess: no). But one could make the case she’s done just that; we’re watching her movie, after all, which is filled with torture (and, for what it’s worth, she has said Zero Dark Thirty is not an endorsement of torture). Lots of people, from civilians to armed forces personnel to government officials, didn’t demand that those who used enhanced interrogation be brought to justice. And now here we are, each review of Zero Dark Thirty weighing in on the morality of torture.

In fact, the torture debate detracts from a different critical narrative; imagine how we’d howl if the movie whitewashed that part of America’s recent past. But forget the politics. This is a movie. As a piece of drama, Zero Dark Thirty is a marvel.

The last third of the film, in which the SEAL Team that killed bin Laden raids his compound, is one of the most tense action set pieces ever committed to film. Even though we know how everything will turn out, it seems for the duration of the raid that something will go wrong, the mission will fail, and bin Laden will remain free. That may be Bigelow’s crowning achievement: Making us think, for a moment, that history will have a different outcome.

As for the cast, Chastain proves, again, she should be cast in every movie. Clarke’s work as Maya’s colleague, Dan, hasn’t gotten as much praise as Chastain’s or director Bigelow, but this is a guy who tortures people, and for whom we end up feeling badly (it’s almost as if torture breaks him, too). That’s an achievement. Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best movies of the year.

Zero Dark Thirty

R, 157 minutes

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