Movie review: “Zero Dark Thirty”


Partner and I have not seen many of the Oscar-nominated movies this year. We wanted, however, to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” and we finally saw it yesterday.

It is excellent. It is beautifully filmed, and tense, and moves along like lightning. I saw in the notes that it was more than two and a half hours long, and my heart sank a little bit, but don’t worry: it’s 160 minutes very well spent.

It is about (as you no doubt already know) the CIA’s search for Osama bin Laden, culminating in the Navy Seals’ attack on the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where bin Ladin lived.

So: it’s one of those movies like “Titanic” and “From Here to Eternity” in which you know the outcome.

And yet you will sweat heavily along the way, wondering if everything is going to go right.

The movie is notable for its lack of human interest and warmth. Its focal character is a CIA operative named Maya (no last name), who comes to Afghanistan in 2003 to join the hunt for Al Qaeda commanders. She becomes convinced that one man – a courier – is the link to Osama himself, and follows that link singlemindedly for almost ten years.

She is proven right.

We know nothing about Maya (played by an excellent and Oscar-worthy Jessica Chastain), except that she was recruited by the CIA when she was very young, and seems to have no personal life. We know nothing of her motivations. There’s one teasing scene halfway through the movie in which a fellow operative nudges her to open up about her life; the scene is interrupted by a terrorist bomb-blast.

The climax of the movie is the Abbottabad raid itself. There’s an eerily beautiful nighttime helicopter flight, followed by an almost-real-time recreation of the raid on the compound. When the Seals are wearing night-vision goggles, that’s how you see the action; when they take the goggles off, suddenly you see the action the way they do. You’re there, with them, inside the compound, every moment, from landing to escape.

The cinematography is unexpectedly beautiful. Pakistan’s cities – Rawalpindi, Peshawur, Islamabad – overflow with color and life. The helicopters flying through the night are gorgeous, like huge silent birds.

Does this sound humorless? There are moments of incongruity which almost made me laugh: a Muslim CIA director praying in his office; a cheerful-looking German shepherd riding in one of the Seals’ helicopters on the way to the Abbottabad raid; an almost-comical scene in Kuwait City, in which a CIA operative buys an informant by giving him a bright-yellow Lamborghini.

Now let’s talk about the politics of the movie.

Critics have been greatly at odds over the movie’s message. Is this a defense of torture as a method of gaining information? Is it “triumphalist”? Is it a subtle criticism of the US’s methods?

Well, it’s all of the above, and none.

War movies used to be easy, right? If John Wayne was fighting, you knew which side the good guys were on. There were “pacifist” movies like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but they were long ago and far away. Then there were the Vietnam movies like “Hamburger Hill” and “The Deer Hunter” and “Platoon,” full of contradictions and personal angst.

This is none of the above. “Zero Dark Thirty” shows Americans torturing Middle Easterners for information, unapologetically. It rubs our nose in it. It shows a shift in 2009, after Obama became president. “The president is thoughtful,” one of the characters says in the latter half of the movie. “He needs proof.”

The movie mentions one solution: a bomb could have easily been dropped on the Abbottabad compound, killing all residents, including all of the women and children.

But the administration chose to go another (riskier) way.

This movie says: Osama bin Laden’s death doesn’t solve everything. War is horrible, and it never ends.

Go see it.

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

One Response to Movie review: “Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. starproms says:

    I think I’d find this film too hard to watch but I’m glad that you two enjoyed it. It sounds extremely tense.

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