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Zero Dark Thirty

2012 | 157 min | R | 1.85:1

Zero Dark Thirty


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1 user review

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Theatrical release date

 19 December, 2012
 25 January, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

Box office




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Zero Dark Thirty


Screenshots from Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray

Zero Dark Thirty Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, January 3, 2013

In 2009, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal hit a career peak with “The Hurt Locker,” a searing exploration of wartime strain and its addictive residue. The effort collected awards and Oscar gold, while bringing Bigelow into the big time after years helming cult hits and ambitious misfires. The pair return to the stress factory of the Middle East with “Zero Dark Thirty,” this time playing footsie with authenticity as they focus on the manhunt for Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on American soil. A direct and riveting procedural picture with a foray into military action, “Zero Dark Thirty” isolates a fascinating inner drive of revenge to fuel interactions with international terrorism, maintaining a hauntingly personal perspective that burns bright while the screenplay spins a sophisticated web of last names and motivations.

Sent to Pakistan to assist with C.I.A. black site operations dedicated to extracting information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden, Maya (Jessica Chastain) has arrived two years after 9/11, finding a bleak location filled with frustrated agents led by Dan (Jason Clark), who’s mastery of torture tactics has provided few leads. Tasked with bringing bin Laden to justice, Maya begins a near-decade-long journey to piece together any information she can find, while her superiors, including station chief Joseph (Kyle Chandler), grow accustomed to her steely, driven personality. As the years pass, opportunities for breakthroughs in the case are decimated by terrorist violence and detainee silence, leaving Maya increasingly obsessed with capture, eventually isolating herself from those tasked to represent her interests to the White House. As the dead ends pile up, Maya finally digs up a promising lead with an Abbottabad compound home to curiously secretive inhabitants. Certain she’s found bin Laden, Maya takes her case to important middlemen (including Mark Strong and James Gandolfini), commencing a lengthy process of doubt and debate, with the White House wary of any further embarrassment in the region.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a throwback to the core films of the 1970s, with its cold-blooded approach of details and intrigue. We learn very little about the characters outside of their C.I.A. mission, rarely following them into their personal lives. In fact, Maya doesn’t have an existence outside the bin Laden hunt, using her spare time to eat and absorb information, spending her youth on maddening details, approaching her assignment to find the al-Qaeda leader as a religion -- a personal mission that acts as the foundation for “Zero Dark Thirty.” While recreations of key terrorist attacks appear and data pertaining to the instability of the region is exhaustively discussed, the feature is not a summation of global terrorism. It merely isolates and studies a single strand of malevolence, concentrating on bin Laden’s ability to elude capture and the reach of his influence as those in his command are tracked and tortured (through various interrogation techniques, including waterboarding and humiliation), inspecting the frustration of impasses and dire developments in the case, without taking on a larger study of fanatical inspiration.

Although the opening of the film offers a card explaining the authenticity of its research, how much of “Zero Dark Thirty” reflects the actual hunt for bin Laden remains in question. Boal’s screenplay is an extremely advanced affair, saturated with confidential discussions and last names galore, leaving those without a profound understanding of al-Qaeda hierarchy and its ties to the outside world a little bewildered at times, forced to take furious mental notes as Maya sinks deeper into her Pakistan stay, chasing anyone who could provide vital information. Boal doesn’t skimp on the bureaucratic particulars, which are labyrinthine at times, but he’s skilled at keeping those seated in the back row in the thick of the hunt, using Maya as an audience surrogate, peeling her one layer at a time to convey the emotional and professional pressure of her life, especially in the middle of Pakistan, where her fair skin and red hair make her stand out even more. Boal aims for a sweep of time, dramatizing terrorist attacks around the world to remind Maya that she is failing in her quest, paring down her ambition from one of duty to punishment, tracing her arc from an ashen agent (Chastain’s naturally Charmin-soft voice comes in handy to reinforce the character’s deceptive vulnerability) watching Dan work over a black site detainee to a hardened, solitary woman with a singular drive to follow through on her goal, despite every possible roadblock in her way. “Zero Dark Thirty” sustains a hypnotic flow of information and evaluation, breaking up the story into chapters for easier consumption, yet remains firmly entrenched in the minutiae of the hunt, while Bigelow maintains pace and visual combustibility with propulsive cinematography and fiery performances.

While the early going of “Zero Dark Thirty” primarily consists of research and devastating setbacks that threaten to undermine Maya’s job, the final hour reaches a question of compound living, where the sullen, sleep-deprived agent discovers bin Laden’s home after years of chasing his ghost, only to find her breakthrough treated with hesitation by her superiors. The movie stews in Maya’s impatience, which carries for over 120 days while men in suits are unwilling to commit to a raid. The buildup of frustration is superbly realized, priming the film for its final wave of violence as SEAL Team Six (including Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) is at last deployed to take down bin Laden and examine the interior of the compound. The sequence, largely captured through night vision goggles, is stunning, communicating the precision of the military team and the insanity of the target’s domestic tranquility, living with wives and children in the middle of a nondescript city street. It’s here where Bigelow comes alive, climaxing the feature with a thrilling display of training impulses and mission success, though the death of bin Laden is left as blunt punctuation, not celebrated as the cure-all for the world’s ills.

It’s smart to accept “Zero Dark Thirty” as a dramatization of real-world events and participants, not as a documentary. It’s an exceptionally executed thriller with an imposing understanding of al-Qaeda and Washington customs, using extensive research and comfort with the subject to motivate a chilling screen story of obsession. It’s first-rate work from Bigelow and Boal, who treat the tale with conviction and knowledge, yet never lose sight of its inherent alarm, packaging a combustible narrative into one of the best pictures of 2012.

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Mark Strong, Scott Adkins, Harold Perrineau
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

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