Film: Zero Dark Thirty
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Plot Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011. The military-jargon title refers to a state of darkness as well as to the time of 12:30 am, Zero Dark Thirty.
Hollywood critics have called Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty a realistic and hard-hitting docu-drama, well-complimented by former journalist Mark Boal's taut script. The film inspired by Osama Bin Laden's legendary capture is a must-watch.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
...Black sites, Washington corridors, tense SUV rides through dangerous city streets in Pakistan, operation rooms containing corkboards packed with names and faces … this could be a regular new milieu for flawed, maverick, attractive young investigators. Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is a key text: a spy drama about the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, starring Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent Maya on a personal mission to nail America's Public Enemy No 1.
...Does this movie show torture getting results? It's ambiguous – and slippery. At first, the film makes a very big deal of showing us torture failing to get results. Then Barack Obama comes in, clamps down on torture, and the agency resorts to conventional analysis and clerical spadework, turning up a crucial long-overlooked lead, relating to "Abu Ahmed", Bin Laden's courier. But they wouldn't know that name was important without the intelligence gained through torture.
What the movie does is maintain a dramatically numbed, non-judgmental view on the torture and then on the non-torture. There is no tonal shift, and no disavowal, moral or strategic. They just change their tactics and the movie stays toughly, undemonstratively onside with the CIA good guys. There is nothing in Zero Dark Thirty comparable to Gavin Hood's soul-searching 2007 movie, Rendition, in which Jake Gyllenhaal's CIA agent denounces waterboarding information as valueless; he quotes Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and says torture victims "speak upon the rack,/ Where men enforced do speak anything".
Ann Hornaday, 4/4
The Washington Post
Having profoundly evoked the tone of fear and loss that pervades and contextualizes all that comes after, within a few scant minutes Bigelow signals that she will not turn away from the most unsavory aspects of the history she’s chronicling and that she will lead viewers through a gnarly, complicated story with authority, flinty composure, keen storytelling instincts and unmatched technical chops.
Although (screenwriter Mark) Boal famously based his script on first-hand interviews with military and intelligence officials who took part in the search for bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” is best appreciated not as journalism but as pure entertainment, an old-fashioned espionage thriller and police procedural that possesses the added frisson of hewing closely -- but not literally -- to real-life events.
Bigelow has done an outstanding job bringing that faceless population to life, enlisting a cast of charismatic young actors to bring memorable verve to otherwise dry proceedings -- including Jason Clarke as a CIA field agent, Mark Strong as a CIA official, Stephen Dillane as a White House security adviser and Chris Pratt and Joel and Nash Edgerton as the SEAL operators who raided the compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, and, a half-hour later, killed Osama bin Laden.
...by and large, “Zero Dark Thirty” dispenses with sentimentality and speculation, portraying the final mission not with triumphalist zeal or rank emotionalism but with a reserved, even mournful sense of ambivalence. Just as Bigelow trusts filmgoers to think critically about American policy and the war on terror without her editorializing, she leaves it to us to figure out what killing Bin Laden really meant -- the ends, the means and all those unresolved data points in between that still multiply exponentially to this day.
Lou Lumenick, The New York Post
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who previously collaborated on Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, devote the last half-hour of their far superior new film to a riveting reconstruction of the Navy SEAL raid on the compound where bin Laden was killed last year.
Bigelow has made an essentially nonpolitical film — far from endorsing the likes of waterboarding, she and Boal leave audiences to decide for themselves whether torture was necessary to stop al Qaeda.
Bigelow and Boal also rigorously eschew the kind of Top Gun heroics we’ve seen in so many movies about military missions.
Maya has to cope with a bit of macho posturing, even from a pair of the Navy SEALs (Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) when she’s briefing them on the mission — but she handles it with aplomb.
Like the fictional Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, Maya is a consummate professional who brilliantly performs her job in an often hostile work environment.
Verdict: So not only is Zero Dark Thirty one of the year’s best movies, it’s an inspiring one to share with your daughters. That is, if they’re old enough to deal with explicit torture scenes.
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Following up on her Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," director Kathryn Bigelow proves herself once again to be a master of heightened realism and narrative drive in this retelling of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden.
The film's concluding section — a crisp re-creation of the Navy SEAL assault on the Pakistani compound where the wily mastermind lived and died — has been much-publicized, and the film's depiction of torture has already become a tempest in a teapot. But those elements are both overshadowed by the performance of Jessica Chastain as the CIA operative who made the raid possible.
Chastain, Oscar-nominated for The Help last year, is a known quantity, but, like Jennifer Lawrence (her likely Academy Award rival this time around), she is a complete chameleon, able to vanish into a variety of roles so different from one another that the switch of persona can be disconcerting.
What is especially contemporary about Zero Dark Thirty's story line is that Boal's script begins by tossing us into the deep end, thrusting us right into the middle of a complicated situation and forcing us to trust that we'll eventually make sense of the welter of meetings, brutal interrogations and Middle Eastern names we're confronted with.
Though in general Zero Dark Thirty is not as interested in exploring personality as "Hurt Locker" was, the one exception is Maya, a character based on a real person but also bolstered by the film's sense that the role women played in the Bin Laden hunt has not been sufficiently recognized.
Verdict: You know you're watching a movie when what was doubtless a tremendously tedious process in real life is made as exciting as all get-out. This salute to what one character calls "big breaks and the little people who make them happen" is an example of cinematic storytelling at its most effective.
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
Once in a long while, a fresh-from-the-headlines movie — like All the President's Men or United 93 — fuses journalism, procedural high drama, and the oxygenated atmosphere of a thriller into a new version of history written with lightning. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's meticulous and electrifying re-creation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is that kind of movie.
Zero Dark Thirty immerses us, brilliantly, in her intellectual processes as she (Maya, played by Jessica Chastain) attempts to find out where on earth this man could be. Gravely alert, Jessica Chastain acts with a hushed ferocity that turns her every reaction into a form of action.
Bigelow stages the deadly raid on the compound for maximum realism, which gives the film a classic thriller climax that is also, in its shockingly low-key way, almost an anti-thriller climax. The Navy SEALs blow open the doors, then inch, floor by floor, through the darkness, where they strafe Osama's assistants and wives — and it's all staged with a calm that mirrors the no-sweat, strictly-business demeanor of the SEALs themselves. (It's no spoiler to say that they get bin Laden, though it would be to say what the killing looks like.) They're soldiers doing their jobs, and with awesome bravery, but Zero Dark Thirty is really a gripping salute to the desk warrior who spent not minutes but years going in for the kill.
Manohla Dargis, New York Times
A seamless weave of truth and drama, Zero Dark Thirty tracks the long, twisted road to Bin Laden’s capture, beginning on Sept. 11 and ending a decade later at another conflagration, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. With a script by Mark Boal, who wrote “The Hurt Locker,” Ms. Bigelow’s last feature, this new movie is a cool, outwardly nonpartisan intelligence procedural — a detective story of sorts — in which a mass murderer is tracked down by people who spend a lot of time staring into computer screens and occasionally working in the field. It is also a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs, which makes it the most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11, a landmark that would be more impressive if there were more such films to choose from.
The scarcity of fiction films about Sept. 11 only partly explains why this movie has provoked debate. Primarily, though, it is the representation of torture — and, more important, the assertion that such abuse produced information that led to Bin Laden — that has provoked outrage in some quarters. We are clearly hungry to work through this raw subject. The most difficult scenes occur early and set the grim mood and moral stakes. (Later there are other, briefer visions of detainees being treated harshly.) It is hard to imagine anyone watching them without feeling shaken or repulsed. Some of the worst is implied: You see a bruised face, not the punch that battered it. You see a man forced into a small box, rather than hear his screams inside it. In these early scenes there is also talk — threats and pleas.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
Whether you call it well-informed speculative history, docudrama re-creation or very stripped-down suspense filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty matches form and content to pretty terrific ends. A long-arc account of the search for Osama bin Laden seen from the perspective of an almost insanely focused female CIA officer who never gives up the hunt until the prey ends up in a body bag, Kathryn Bigelow's and Mark Boal's heavily researched successor to Oscar winner The Hurt Locker will be tough for some viewers to take, not only for its early scenes of torture, including waterboarding, but due to its denial of conventional emotionalism and non-gung ho approach to cathartic revenge-taking. Films touching on 9/11, such as United 93, World Trade Center and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, have proved commercially toxic, and while this one has a “happy” ending, its rigorous, unsparing approach will inspire genuine enthusiasm among the serious, hardcore film crowd more than with the wider public.
As it has emerged instead, Zero Dark Thirty could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal, as one keenly feels the drive of the filmmaker channeled through the intensity of Maya's character. The film's power steadily and relentlessly builds over its long course, to a point that is terrifically imposing and unshakable.
Chastain carries the film in a way she's never been asked to do before. Denied the opportunity to provide psychological and emotional details for Maya, she nonetheless creates a character that proves indelible and deeply felt. The entire cast works in a realistic vein to fine effect.
Verdict: The story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden builds relentlessly to a powerful end result.
Our Verdict: This film may be a gory presentation of the legendary capturing of terrorist Bin Laden but it is certainly an insightful one and a must-watch.