Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark ThirtyEvery so often a film comes along that courts controversy for whatever reason. A Clockwork Orange was controversial because it featured rape scenes, Brokeback Mountain was considered controversial because of its portrayal of homosexuality, and there are countless others that have had the Mary Whitehouses of this world wagging their fingers disapprovingly. Now Zero Dark Thirty, the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow, is another to get people jumping on their high horse due to its apparent glorification of torture.

Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the hunt and assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It is largely based on fact although it’s fair to say that some embellishment and artistic license has occurred. The original script was about the fruitless hunt for the Al Qaeda figure as it was written before his death, but this was changed to include his eventual demise. More specifically, the film focuses on CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her involvement in locating where Bin Laden was hiding.

This issue of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is little more than a fuss over nothing. Bigelow defended herself by saying that portraying the torture is not the same as excusing it and that’s spot on the money. It’s an honest telling and leaving out the torture would do the film a disservice. Ethics don’t come into it here.

It’s a somewhat slower film than some may expect, punctuated with the occasional terrorist explosion, although the real meat of the story comes in Maya’s constant battle with her superiors. The sporadic action set pieces are, however, a welcome change of pace although they do occasionally feel like the film trying to remind us who the bad guys are and that everything the CIA are doing is justified. The final act, the actual assassination of Bin Laden, is superbly filmed (at times through nothing more than night vision) and is incredibly tense even though you know pretty much how it’s going to play out.

Jessica Chastain gives a very good (but no better than very good) performance as Maya and it’s interesting to see the character grow in confidence and stature from timid at the outset to ballsy and assertive by the film’s conclusion. Jason Clarke and Mark Strong also give entertaining turns in their respective roles of fellow CIA operative and CIA director.

Zero Dark Thirty could well have been flag waving propaganda and there is somewhat of a sense of that at times, be it intended or accidental. Despite that, it’s also an incredibly well made film, superbly paced and with a strong female lead that gives the film more of an identity. However, whether this is how events really did play out or whether this is what we’re encouraged to believe is a different matter.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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43 thoughts on “Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

  1. Nicely reviewed as always buddy.

  2. Hunter says:

    The thing about ZDT that I felt when I saw it was that I was interested in Maya’s character but not so much the hunt for bin Laden. So when they cut away from her, I was not too interested unfortunately. I agree with you though that the controversy over the torture is out of proportion to what’s in the movie. I think they just sort of state it was a fact, and when you think about it they’d be stupid not to use the information it gave them once they got it. I mean if you got it, may as well use it. And it’s not like they continues after they were told to stop, like torture was some uncontrollable urge they had or something. I though it seemed pretty accurate, not that I know what actually happened or anything, but it seemed like what people would do from my point of view.

    • To be honest, I was the other way round. I didn’t feel that invested in Maya. I thought she was pretty interesting but not the amazing role I was expecting. I also thought Chastain was surprisingly average considering she’s up for an Oscar. I don’t think I was more interested in the story of them getting Bin Laden but more how it was portrayed.
      And yeah the torture was just a load of fuss over nothing. It’s been done before and will be done again, just because it’s apparently the good guys doing it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shown. And If i remember correctly, wasn’t the info they obtained info they had all along but just hadn’t realised or something? Thus showing that the torture was pointless and not glamourising it at all.

  3. Nostra says:

    I really wasn’t as shocked about the torture as most people seem to be. Basically it’s stuff I’ve heard about in the news and besides that, there have been many TV shows and movies which already showed it in some form.

    • Precisely. It wasn’t even that explicit. There are much worse things out there but because this is a more mainstream movie it gets criticised. If it wasn’t put in everyone would have accused Bigelow, etc, of not giving an accurate representation and just ignoring it, so she couldn’t win really. I thought it was pretty good of her to show that the ‘good guys’ do horrible stuff too.

  4. mettelray says:

    Like I said in my review, I didn’t think the scenes were thrilling enough but I’m more high maintenance then. PS: I didn’t think the torture should have been a stand point of criticism, I mean, there wasn’t much of it, it didn’t carry, in the end they showed that they got the info by giving him food so.. what’s there to criticize.

    • Exactly, there’s not really any argument for not showing the torture. It seems some people just don’t want to see that the good guy Americans have done something that is pretty immoral.
      And I agree it is pretty slow in places but I think it was paced fairly well overall.

  5. Tyson Carter says:

    I’ve said this other places, but I’ll say it again; Jason Clarke makes this movie, yet is overlooked criminally for awards. He was incredible 🙂

  6. CMrok93 says:

    Good review. The movie is great and just continued to build up tension, as each and every scene went along. Loved the cast, loved the script, loved the direction, and just about loved everything with this movie and definitely needs to be seen.

    • I don’t think I was quite as taken with it as yourself Dan but I did enjoy it. I did find my attention wandering at certain points, I must admit. from what I’ve seen, this has generally had a more favourable reception Stateside than it has here in the UK, which is interesting. I do have my reservations over the subject matter but I can;t argue that it’s a well made film.

  7. ruth says:

    Glad you appreciate this one Chris! I don’t see this as an ‘apparent glorification of torture’ and I agree w/ Bigelow’s reasoning that depiction is not endorsement. The characters themselves were not portrayed as psychopaths that enjoy torturing people, in fact Clarke’s character was clearly disturbed by the whole process. Even though it’s slow, I find it riveting and suspenseful. Chastain was able to carry the film I think, but the supporting cast was superb as well.

    • Definitely Ruth, I didn’t for one moment think that torture was being glorified. I really don’t get what all the fuss was about. It could be that some people simply didn’t want to believe that such horrible torture techniques were being used by the supposed good guys.
      The supporting cast definitely deserve more credit than they have received. I didn’t think Chastain was as good as I was led to believe. I don’t think she brought much to the role that other actresses couldn’t have done.

      • ruth says:

        I hear ya about Chastain. I personally would like to see Jennifer Lawrence winning Best Actress than her, she was more compelling in SLP. Still I think Chastain is a darn good actress though.

      • Oh yeah no doubt about Chastain’s acting ability, I just don’t think it was as they say ‘all that’ in ZDT 🙂
        I would be more than happy for Lawrence to win, she was superb in SLP.

  8. Yeah, I’m with you Chris. I dont think she was glorifying anything. Tortue was part of the story, so she kept it part of the story. This was just a taut thriller, in my book. I didnt think that it was overly propaganda-ish at all.

    • I didn’t see any glorification at all, I was waiting for it to happen and it just didn’t! If it had been left out, Bigelow would have been accused over covering it up. It’s a lose-lose. Good job us level-headed bloggers can see the truth! Ha!
      I think there were certain elements of propaganda in there but that could just be a slightly cynical person expecting to see it.

  9. ianthecool says:

    I’m also glad it didn’t turn into flag-waving.

  10. ckckred says:

    Nice review. One of my favorites of 2012 and I thought it was superb. Bigelow handles the climax very well and I’m rooting for Chastain to take the Oscar.

  11. sati says:

    I don’t really understand why the portrayal of torture is such a big issue. Everyone knows it happens. Everyone knows that in some cases that brought valuble information. Are people offended by it suggesting that things that are morally outrageous shouldn’t be shown at all? It’s quite ridiculous. For me far bigger issue was using the real recordings of victims in the prologue. I found that to be a repugnant thing to do.

    • I must admit, that did take me aback slightly too. It was also a very obvious starting point and one of several instances that I felt was just to make us feel like all the bad stuff the CIA was doing was justified. But yeah the whole torture issue was a little pathetic to be hones and the fact that everyone on here has said the same thing shows to me that there’s not really much problem with it.

  12. meeradarjiyr1 says:

    Great review! Nicely worded, its definitely on my watch-list 🙂

  13. jeffro517 says:

    I think the film was nicely done. It focused on the pursuit, as opposed to over-dramatizing the actual assault on the Bin Laden compound. I also thought they did a good job not making me feel like there was a huge political agenda attached. Nice review!

  14. thedavidryan says:

    Cracking review! Never leave me.

  15. Great write up. I really enjoyed this movie – even more than The Hurt Locker. The final mission to Bin Laden’s compound was so tense, despite knowing the outcome. Jessica Chastain put in a powerful performance and I agree with you that the supporting cast was also very strong. One of my favourites so far this year and my second pick for Best Picture – after Beasts Of The Southern Wild!

    • Thanks Natalie. I’ve not seen all of the best pic noms yet but it’s not that high up the list for me to be honest. I did enjoy the film but I didn’t feel blown away by it. The final mission I did enjoy though, I thought that was excellent and it was a very well made film. I think Bigelow probably should have been given a nomination for Best Director though, that feels like a bit of a snub to me.

  16. Mark Walker says:

    A very fine balanced review sir. I struggled with the nature of the story and the flag waving, as you know. Still, I did appreciate how well it was made at times. Just didn’t care for the material too much.

    • Thank you kindly! I agree, I struggled with the material at times, too, but I tried to base my score on how well made the film was. My score is slightly on the generous side to be honest, I felt it just scraped the 4. There was definitely some flag waving for me which stopped it being better than it could have been.

  17. For some reason this film did not meet my expectations. I found the torture controversy way overblown. It’s not like Mr. Blonde was cutting off someone’s ear.
    Chastain was good but I have seen her perform better in other roles. Similarly, while this was well directed it is certainly not Bigelow’s best film, that would be Point Break. “I am an FBI Agent!”

  18. Great review, man! Loved ZDT, especially Maya, which was the main reason it was so riveting for me.

    • Cheers mate! Yeah Maya was a really interesting character. I didn’t feel Chastain did anything exceptional with the role though, it was pretty workmanlike for the most part I thought, but I seem to be in the minority about this.

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