zero dark thirty

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark ThirtyReel Rating: 5 out of 5 Reels
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, including brutal disturbing images, and for language
Released in Theaters: Jan. 11, 2012
Genre: Drama, War, History, Action
Runtime: 157 minutes
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Strong, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini
Official Site: Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for an Oscar for best picture this past week, and it’s a well deserved nomination. Director Kathryn Bigelow, who some say was snubbed for a best director nod, does a fine job of taking us behind the scenes of events and people we only heard about through snippets on the news during the past decade. It’s clear that this case is much more complicated than anyone outside of the CIA’s inner circle will ever know.

The story begins with the day no one will ever forget — the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. We hear audio of people in the towers and on the planes, and it takes you right back to that horrible day.

Directly following the attacks, a CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain, nominated for a best actress Oscar) begins the hunt for international terrorist Osama bin Laden. Chastain’s nomination is also well deserved, because she delivers a nuanced performance that begins with her witnessing torture and “waterboarding” of one of bin Laden’s underlings. You can tell she’s horrified by the process at first, but in the next decade, her stance on torture takes a different turn as she single-mindedly tracks the terrorist.

Maya follows many leads that go nowhere. She loses many colleagues to explosions and other terrorist deaths. And she witnesses some devastating terrorist attacks. When she herself ends up on the terrorist “list,” she’s nearly killed by an explosion and direct gunfire.

zero dark thirty
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty | Columbia Pictures

Through it all, her one goal of finding and killing bin Laden never wavers and, in fact, grows stronger with each attack. Maya believes she has been spared from death to finish the job, and at long last, she finally obtains some fuzzy details as to where bin Laden might be hiding — the cement fortress we caught glimpses of on the news. Based on sketchy intel — and after badgering the suits in Washington for more than 100 days — she finally launches her attack, using S.E.A.L. Team 6.

There have been other movies about the hunt and attack on bin Laden, but what elevates Zero Dark Thirty is that it plays more like a documentary. Sitting in the theater, you can feel yourself getting tense because you know roughly how things play out, but you feel like you’re right in the midst of the action and drama.

Bigelow seems to have a direct line into not only the human psyche, but also how violence is played out in our global culture of war and terror. She did that with her first Oscar-winning movie, The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty is even more complex and ambitious.

In Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow doesn’t shirk from showing the brutality of waterboarding (and has defended the movie over the past week, noting that “showing” torture does not translate to “advocating” torture. Zero Dark Thirty does not take sides; it simply shows how things went down over the past decade. Bigelow has also had to defend herself in HOW she obtained the intel that went into making the movie.

At 157 minutes, Zero Dark Thirty is on the long side, but I never felt the length, because it’s easy to get drawn into the story and lose track of time. During the final 40-minute attack sequence, I was glued to my seat in tense anticipation, even though I knew roughly how it all turned out. As we all know, they got Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Zero Dark Thirty is a great movie, not only for the behind-the-scenes politics and war drama, but also for the production value — the cinematography, the writing and the directing. Bigelow mixes in little moments here and there where we can see Maya grieving over lost colleagues or re-focusing her efforts. It makes you see what can be done with laser-focused grit and determination.


Sex/Nudity: Male prisoners are stripped of their clothes, but we only see naked behinds. One brief scene takes place in a nightclub with scantily-clad girls dancing. Some sexual innuendo throughout the movie.

Violence/Gore: Frequent tension and peril throughout the movie. Several scenes of torture and severe interrogation techniques, including “waterboarding” and humiliation (a man’s pants are stripped off in front of a female CIA agent). A few intense battle sequences with guns, shooting (sometimes at close range), dead bodies, and blood. Bombs are set off, with injuries and casualties. The S.E.A.L. team takes picture of the dead Osama bin Laden. Other inhabitants of the bunker are killed, and children are frightened and crying.

Profanity: Strong and quite frequent. Includes “f–k” and “motherf—er,” “s–t,” “a–hole,” “ass,” “bitch,” “damn,” “hell,” and “d–k,” plus “goddamn” and “oh my God.”

Drugs/Alcohol: Characters smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. Wine is used to decompress from tense situations.

Which Kids Will Like It? Kids 16 and older who like true-life war or political dramas with tense scenes.

Will Parents Like It? The Oscar nomination for best picture is well deserved; it’s a well-done movie that goes behind the scenes of snippets and photos we’ve seen on the news for the past decade.

One Reel – Even the Force can’t save it.
Two Reels – Coulda been a contender
Three Reels – Something to talk about.
Four Reels – You want the truth? Great flick!
Five Reels – Wow! The stuff dreams are made of.


4 responses to “Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. […] Chastain is nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her work in the riveting film “Zero Dark Thirty.” […]

  2. […] on the low down, there are the whisper campaigns and backlashes. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” seems to have fallen out of frontrunner favor because of the torture controversy, much of […]

  3. […] a trouper! It was a fabulous event with some candid and colorful quotes from the “Zero Dark Thirty” […]

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