johnlink ranks ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

… because any time you can follow up a Buster Keaton comedy with a movie about torture and a mass murderer, you have to do it. ZERO DARK THIRTY has been on my list to see for far too long. I’m thinking I should just start a series called “John Lincoln Is Late To The Oscar Party” and keep watching stuff I should have seen already.


I watched ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) on 2.4.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

ZERO DARK THIRTY feels like two separate movies. The first half of the film, almost to the minute, tells the story of Maya (Jessica Chastain) in her dogged quest to track down a messenger she theorizes is very close to Osama bin Laden. When something tragic happens at the halfway point, this earnestness becomes desperate need to see bin Laden dead.

Writer Mark Boal had been working on a script which was to be about the failure to capture or kill the Al Qaeda leader. The movie was to be produced as such. When bin Laden was, quite suddenly, killed by American forces the movie had to change. This shift is most felt in the last half of the film, specifically in the depiction of the raid on bin Laden’s home.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has worked well in this part of the world before. Her HURT LOCKER told the story of men on the front most lines of war in the Middle East. As most of ZERO DARK THIRTY focuses on Maya, this is a film showing us what it is like to be on the other end of those microphones, to be the one collecting data, making assessments, and sending people to the battle lines.

The big debate following the release of this film had to do with the narrative of torture. ZERO DARK THIRTY introduces elevated interrogation techniques as a necessary piece of the puzzle to garner the information which directly led to bin Laden. The CIA made the unusual step of publicly refuting this idea, stating that torture was not in any way responsible for the end result. The characters in the movie make a couple of snarky comments, but mostly stay away from the debate. But by so clearly showing the techniques bringing about useful information throughout the film’s first half, it certainly tries to make the case as to its effectiveness.

This film wears its ideology on its sleeve. This is an American picture about the rightness of American principles. As an American, it challenges me to question whether or not I support the tactics used to get the end result. Where the film fails to offer a differing viewpoint is in its choice to only torture bad guys. When a ‘gentle’ Al Qaeda supporter is found, he is interviewed gently. Maya doesn’t pick the wrong people to interrogate in this story, her hunches always pan out.

The acting, though, is wonderful. Some characters come and go with such haste that we are left trying to figure out when we last saw this suit or that tie. It may not have been a thematic choice commenting on bureaucracy, but it works as such regardless. Chastain’s Maya evolves as much as any character in this genre has in awhile. She enters the film thinking she is tough and resilient. She learns what tough and resilient means throughout the film. The last shot is a Rorschach test. Is she happy? Is she relieved? Has she lost her purpose? Is she finally coming to the realization that her life work is done and she has no human connection to anyway? It is what the viewer would like it to be.

The crispness of the Navy Seals incursion is vital. The film swaps between dark silhouettes moving in the moonlight and night-vision. The sequence pulls no punches and covers up no questionable choices. When a woman is shot, did she need to be? When a man is goaded into turning a corner, was he a threat? As civilians it is easy to question these choices. The success of the film has to do with its ability to really make the final battle a true horror show despite the fact that we know the outcome of this true story.

ZERO DARK THIRTY really does land well. You may well disagree with its politics, and you may well disagree with its characters tactics. Yet, partly because of this struggle, Bigelow has managed to deliver yet another important film to add to the canon of the modern anti-terrorism canon.





~ by johnlink00 on February 5, 2014.

3 Responses to “johnlink ranks ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)”

  1. Good review. I mostly agree. The acting is terrific and it does feel like two movies boiled into one. On those points we jive.

    I am, however, less convinced that Chastain’s character is well-written. She is amazingly well acted, but the character has, I think, one note, the same one throughout. Which is why this one is not nearly as good as The Hurt Locker.

    • I think there is a little more nuance than that. I think there is a true shift when the tragedy hits her close. She goes from earnest to obsessed. She seems to go from detached to cold. Maybe this is what breaks at the end in the last shot.
      Though, the MFer line is pure placation, sure, I think in general it is a character that works.
      But I’m always happy to disagree! 🙂

  2. Good review John. Not much happens here for a very, very long time, but it was still tense and exciting to watch. Most of that has to do with how great the script is, but it’s also because the cast really do know how to work with it in every which way, and make use of their screen-time. No matter how substantial it may or may not be.

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