Movie Review: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain stars in 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Jessica Chastain stars in 'Zero Dark Thirty' - Photo by Jonathan Olley, ©2012 Zero Dark Thirty, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Reviewed by Ian Forbes

Opening in darkness, as phone calls to emergency services are frantically made from the top of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty instantly sets a grim tone and little that happens over the next two and half hours does much to lighten the mood. Of course, one doesn’t exactly expect the story of hunting down the Al Qaeda head honcho to be a romantic comedy.

The film states via on-screen text that it’s based on first hand accounts and director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have attempted to create as accurate an account of events over the course of 10 years as possible. If one has read or merely glanced at entertainment news, the link between torture and credible evidence towards finding Osama bin Laden as portrayed in the movie is pretty much all anyone is talking about. According to everything the U.S. Government is saying about the results of torturing detainees, this appears to be a key misstep by the filmmakers but it’s just about the only one.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty' - Photo © Columbia Pictures

Jessica Chastain plays a CIA agent hell-bent on locating Osama, whose resolve and attitude are eroded over the course of the film by bureaucracy and the elusiveness of her target. It’s a measured performance but purposefully so; the restraint exercised by Chastain paying off more and more as her character evolves. Her intensity and excellence is matched by the rest of the supporting cast, most notably by Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler whom she relies on to first learn the ropes, and then leverages once she is able to narrow down bin Laden’s hiding spot.

The cinematography, editing and production design all work hand-in-hand with Bigelow’s vision. The film presents a mirror to the tactics and actions that have transpired since 9/11. However, rather than propagandizing like Act of Valor, there is no ‘rah rah’ going on here. Sure, eventually the Navy Seals are called in and their part in things is done with supreme confidence and shifts the film into a higher gear with some excellent action. But don’t go into the theater expecting wall-to-wall action, this is about the tireless pursuit Chastain and her colleagues undertake and focuses mostly on the gathering of information.

By now, people are releasing their ‘Best of’ lists and I’m sure cinemaphiles have realized Zero Dark Thirty made many of them (including mine). 2012 was rather lackluster overall, especially when it came to the big tent pole films, but this one hit the mark. Between the moral issues, reflection on a tumultuous period of history, and quality filmmaking, Bigelow and company have managed to deliver one of the few movies from the year that will still mean something down the road.


Zero Dark Thirty is rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.

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