Film Review – Zero Dark Thirty


Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt

Writers: Mark Boal





“I’m the motherfucker that found this place. Sir.”

American white wash propaganda vehicle or, a well balanced account of what a nation expected to be the crowning glory of its war on terror turning into a hollow victory? Lets face it, a Hollywood dramatisation of the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden was never going to cause anything but maximum polarising outrage from all corners. Especially not with a super sexy female lead sporting iconic sun glasses and a promotional campaign full of American special forces, as they say, “kicking butt”.

Without getting too bogged down in the never-to-be-resolved debate over the responsibility of film to adhere to fact over drama, it has to be pointed out that written history and political commentary allows for the full spectrum of interpretations – it is not exactly hard to find a pro or anti American polemic on the shelves of the local book store – so why should film be any different? Really it comes down to a question of whether you expect to get your political and historical education from Hollywood, and if you do then there’s no helping you anyway.

This cheesy stars and stripes shot was probably entirely accidental.

This cheesy stars and stripes shot was probably entirely accidental.

That said there certainly are one or two questionable elements bound to upset victims of American foreign policy which it is difficult to ignore. The modern horror of drone bombing is conveniently skipped over with an off hand piece of dialogue, while the graphic torture scenes carried out by the CIA operatives are reconstructed in gruesome detail. Although shocking, it can’t exactly be said that Zero Dark is glorifying these scenes and it’s difficult to see how anyone could watch and feel pride or a sense of justice. The political/moral decision to bring the use of torture to an end and the eventual success of the mission through more traditional intel and surveillance methods also suggests otherwise.

Anyway – oh yes, this is a film! Away from all that political bollocks, one thing which cant be denied is how slick and well crafted an action-thriller Zero Dark Thirty is. The cinematography captures the many locales in beautifully framed shots, from the harsh sun parched deserts of the Middle East, to the colourful and chaotic back streets of Pakistan (probably actually filmed in India).

Director Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker) maintains the pace at high levels throughout, the incessant tension never allowing the audience to relax throughout the exhausting 2 hour 30 minute runtime. As the CIA run into dead end after dead end there is a looming sense of stress and frustration which builds.


Originally intended as a film about the failure to capture Bin Laden, the unexpected evolution of real life events during production has thankfully provided the story with a much more epic structure with an all out balls to the wall finale. What could have descended into a long winded spy yarn with little pay off is thankfully given a much needed second wind with a shift from cloak and dagger into a conventional military action set piece more reminiscent of Black Hawk Down. During this flashy and explosive sequence every modern shaky-camera movement imaginable is employed and even one or two nods to Call of Duty and similar video-games (which could be construed as subliminal military advertising by those who see it this as an exercise in propaganda but could just be a confident and modern minded director drawing on unexpected inspiration). Despite it often being difficult to see much of what is happening in this extremely dark night time raid, it is executed with as much white knuckle, edge of your seat tension as is possible.

There are the expected moments of bombastic American pride, which make the rest of the world (and probably a few American’s) role their eyes, as can be expected of such a monumental event in US history. In particular the opening use of an audio recording from 9/11 feels manipulative and inappropriate, not to mention completely unnecessary and rather obscure in its job of setting up the mission ahead. It is doubtful many people have forgotten what started the hunt for Bin Laden and they are unlikely to be baying for blood after hearing this oddly invasive recording.

Despite the nationalism which occasionally creeps in the end of ZDT  takes a surprising turn. It can’t be said that it ends with the expected atmosphere of ‘a job well done’, although again – this is probably all open to interpretation depending on whether you identify with the journey of the characters or with the resolution of the politics. It is not hard to imagine that there were plenty of proud ‘mericans whooping out of their seats as dead bodies were repeatedly shot to confirm the kill, but many others will be left pondering the nature of victory in such an unconventional conflict.

It is hard to imagine the multiplexes of Baghdad and Islamabad heaving with satisfied customers, nor is ZDT likely to be among Noam Chomsky’s DVD collection, but non-the-less it is an accomplished piece of film making from a talented director. Despite the odd nationalistic indulgence and debatable tone, there is a a much more down beat ending than would be expected which just might make you think. Just don’t base your War on Terror PHD on it.





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