Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty”

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Consider Kathryn Bigelow’s epic Zero Dark Thirty as simultaneously cut-to-the-bone lean and monumentally vast. Not quite fiction, not quite documentary, the term “docudrama” is apt. But don’t expect a fast-paced historic reenactment akin to All the President’s Men. Instead, Zero Dark Thirty carefully picks through the factual and fictional rubble and rock of ten years, ultimately shrinking and compressing the many elements into a singular arrowhead, pointing to one courier, one location, one Osama Bin Laden.

It’s not just the impressive efforts onscreen. Echoing the film’s depiction of years enmeshed in chasing down vague information, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (the Oscar-winning team from The Hurt Locker) worked for two years on an earlier version – informally called “the Tora Bora movie” – which entailed the fruitless hunt for the al-Qaeda leader. But once President Obama announced Bin Laden’s death on May 1, 2011, the filmmakers scrapped all but the first two minutes of the film and started again. Now that’s some commitment.

That said, those opening two minutes are riveting. We stare at a black screen while an audio mosaic of desperate voices washes over us. It’s the voices of 9/11: victims, responders and families synchronously crying out. And we are viscerally, dramatically reminded why the hunt for this particular kingpin, “the North Star of global terrorism,” was America’s top priority.

But as with most pressing news items, one day follows the next, priorities shift, administrations come and go, and the once-impassioned need to capture Bin Laden wanes. We see the numbers of intelligence agents diminish over the years, with only a handful of operatives still trying to make sense of this enormous nihilistic jigsaw, without backing, or resources, or any substantial leads. Introduced during the first scene, we meet Jessica Chastain’s Maya, the CIA operations analyst who carries the film’s narrative thread from 2001 to 2011. Based on a true-life female operative, Maya is the proverbial cheese who stands alone, refusing to tear herself away from the mission. When civilians and colleagues become victims to ensuing deadly mayhem, her obsession intensifies as she states, “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”

While Chastain is immediately, physically recognizable, she delivers an entirely different performance from those we’ve viewed over the past two years. Neither a warm mother figure (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter), nor decorative eye candy (The Help, Lawless), her straight-backed Maya never veers from her objective. Sans any history, or lovers or parental figures, we only know this CIA operations analyst through her actions. She can dispassionately watch as prisoners are tortured (registering a barely-perceptible flinch) and, when questioned by CIA Director Leon Panetta (ably played by James Gandolfini), she minces no words about her discovery of the Abbottabad compound, blurting out, “I’m the mother fucker that found this place.” It is a lean performance, devoid of all sentimentality.

However, while others mention her reputation as “a killer,” we’re left without any knowledge of what she’d done to earn that moniker. Or what incidents might have contributed in creating her fierce obsession. In the last act, Maya takes a red pen and scrawls a daily count on her boss’s window, reflecting the growing tally of days in which he hasn’t acted. This is the most impassioned, physical action we get from her, and it’s a welcome addition.

The look and the sound of the film is just as exacting as other elements of Zero Dark Thirty. As contrasted with a vibrant outdoor Pakistani scene, the CIA’s inner-office lighting is painfully bleak and ugly. The soundtrack is barebones; in this film, no puppet master is manipulating us, telling us what to feel or what to think. Even the few scenes of waterboarding are devoid of bias. Torture methodologies are what they are … sometimes these actions produce viable results and, just as often, they do not. Bigelow and Boal are rare filmmakers, in that they don’t underestimate the intelligence of their audience. We are allowed to make up our own minds.

Small performances stand out, economic yet moving. Other than Gandolfini, we get smart support from Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Ehle. Jason Clarke as an interrogator who knows when it’s time to retreat back to the staid, yet far more sane world that can be found from behind a desk, is particularly effective.


Director/Producer Kathryn Bigelow (left) and Writer/Producer Mark Boal

There may be some grousing that, at 157 minutes, the movie runs too long. But Zero Dark Thirty had set out to deliver an overarching decade-long sweep … and it does just that. Additionally, it’s a credit to the filmmakers that though we know the ending, the last act holds us in a mad grip of suspense.

The fact Bigelow and Boal could create such a stupendous second effort after their prior The Hurt Locker is no small feat. Leading us to consider what, exactly, is more unbelievable: Finding Bin Laden in an unassuming northern Pakistani suburb? Or watching Kathryn Bigelow – the only woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Director – take home the top prize once again?


Rating on a scale of 5 military terms for 30 minutes after midnight: 4.5

Release date: December 19, 2012 (ltd.); wide release January 11, 2013
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass
Rating: R
Running Time: 157 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes ( Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.


  1. Ben says:

    ‘Torture methodologies are what they are … sometimes these actions produce viable results and, just as often, they do not.’

    In this instance they did not produce any viable results. I hope the film doesn’t suggest otherwise.

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