Zero Dark Thirty (review)

MaryAnn’s quick take: If only this were a wholly fictional story, I could get behind it 100 percent, instead of the 95 percent I can give.
I’m “biast” (pro): loved Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Too soon? Too soon for a kickass political action movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden? It’s been less than two years since a black-ops team of elite American soldiers executed the purported mastermind of 9/11… without any sort of due process… on the sovereign soil of another nation. Or maybe it’s not too soon, because while there were some twitters of discontent back in the spring of 2011 about how extralegal the whole shebang was, hardly anyone today seems to be in the least bit perturbed by any of it. Go America!

Could be I’m trending a tad toward the unfair to Zero Dark Thirty for being more nuanced than the American public personality tends to be. But the absence of even the smallest, teensiest, most tepid sort of criticism about all the Not Very Nice things America did along the way to killing Bin Laden, right up to actually killing him the way it did, bothers the law-abiding moralist in me. I don’t need a moralistic movie per se. But I might have liked just the briefest line of dialogue here in which someone — anyone — questions the right of the United States to infiltrate an ally nation such as Pakistan on nothing more than our own ballsy say-so, never mind what the Pakistanis might think about it. You know, just for a moment before it gets dismissed by all the gung-ho rah-rah Americans. I might have liked just the quickest nod to a hint of an appreciation for the fact that it’s precisely the sort of disregard for the rule of international law or human rights that makes so many people around the world angry at the US.

Yeah yeah yeah: Bin Laden — or whoever was behind 9/11 — had no regard for the rule of international law or human rights either. But he was the bad guy, right? We’re supposed to be the good guys, aren’t we?

If only this were a wholly fictional story, with none of the baggage of real life weighing it down, I could probably get behind it 100 percent, instead of the “mere” 95 percent I can give. Because director Kathryn Bigelow, reuniting with her Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, has created an awesomely engaging investigative procedural featuring perhaps the most fearsome female protagonist ever. Jessica Chastain (Lawless, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted) is immensely tough and gratifying and uncomfortable and astonishing as Maya, a CIA operative who is as intelligent, as driven, as aggressive, as singleminded as any man is every allowed to be in The Movies, and with no subsequent Hollywood-style punishment for it. (She doesn’t break up with a boyfriend who accuses her of being more interested in Bin Laden that she is in him!) Well, yes, there is the suggestion that, in the end, the successful conclusion to her hunt for the world’s most wanted man — spoiler! she gets him! — is less than fully satisfying for her, but that’s fine. More than fine: it’s the best the film has to offer by way of saying that the cost of the hunt might have been more than it was worth.

It’s true, too, that the film is blunt about those costs without being exploitive about them. There are scenes of torture here, of an Al Qaeda detainee in a “black site” at an “undisclosed location,” that do not pretend that there is anything enjoyable about it for those dishing it out (including the spectacularly good Jason Clarke [Lawless, Trust] as a CIA colleague of Maya’s who makes sporadic appearances). Yet there is also the hint that, all evidence to the contrary aside — we know that torture is not an effective method of interrogation — torture produced actionable intelligence in the hunt for Bin Laden. There is implied criticism of President Obama’s public determination to end US torture. And too little of made of the impact witnessing the torture has on Maya: while we see later that it gets easier for her to swallow her disgust at such methods, most of the emotional reality of being a human being participating in the unpleasant actions that were required — or at least depicted here as required — to find Bin Laden is avoided.

Still, there are movie-movie pleasures here, even if they sit alongside awkward realities. A visit to Area 51? Whoa. An appearance by Torchwood’s John Barrowman, even if it is only two lines in one scene? Cool. If only there were some love for that Pakistani guy on Twitter who inadvertently let that nighttime get-Bin Laden-raid cat out of the bag…

Maybe Zero Dark Thirty is too soon. Too soon for us to look at this film as pure art, pure entertainment, as separate from its inevitable sociopolitical implications. But right now, this feels just a little bit more propagandistic — ain’t American awesome?! — than I’m completely comfortable with.

Listen to me discuss Zero Dark Thirty in a January 2022 guest appearance on the podcast SpyHards.

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Thu, Jan 10, 2013 5:29pm

I haven’t seen the movie yet.  But, from a purely pragmatic point of view, I prefer what was done with Bin Laden 2 years ago, then in Iraq 10 years ago.  Perhaps, if Bin Laden was killed in the winter of 2001, or *captured* even, the course of our nation’s history would have been significantly different?  Perhaps, our goal should have been getting those RESPONSIBLE for 9/11 rather than nation building in nations that didn’t want us there, many thousands of lives (American and otherwise) could have been spared in America’s quest for “closure”.

I’m too numb from the last 11 and half years of America’s insane foreign policy to get up in arms about the ethics of the Bin Laden killing.  And that’s a tragedy, too.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Patlandness
Thu, Jan 10, 2013 5:50pm

At least you recognize that your lack of concern is a tragedy.

I cannot cheer the extralegal killing of even the likes of Bin Laden. He should have been captured and tried, not executed without due process. That’s what the good guys do. That’s what the Nuremberg Trials were about.

All we’ve done with our actions since 9/11 is create more people who hate us. Not for our freedoms. For our arrogance.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Jan 10, 2013 7:43pm

From a Pakistani’s point of view i would like to say that a lot of Pakistani’s were glad at OBL’s capture/killing and were expecting that americans would start seeing us as good people who never wanted OBL to be in our country instead of the general perception that pakistani’s harbored terrorists and hates usa for no reason. 

A lot of pakistanis started hating usa for the drone attacks which did not differentiate between a real terrorist and some nice people forced to live amongst the terrorists who had laid seige on their villages. Innocent people died and for those of us who are not directly effected since none of our relatives or friends lived in north western drone-struck regions of Pakistan, we hoped this event would signal the start of an era where the world would start looking at us as victims and that the satisfied americans would play a part in this shift of opinion about pakistanis. yet that did not happen. 

sorry for polluting your blog with sort-of-unrelated comments.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Imran
Thu, Jan 10, 2013 11:10pm

America’s drone warfare is an atrocity.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jan 11, 2013 5:46pm

Sad, isn’t it? Twenty kids get killed at an American school and we (rightfully) react with horror, never realizing how many innocent children we’re killing with our drone strikes. They’re dismissed with the phrase “collateral damage.”

reply to  Beowulf
Sat, Jan 12, 2013 1:20am

 horrific, isn’t it?  Racist too – they’re saying these lives over here are more important than those lives over there.  Mind you,  finding OBL in Pakistan would perhaps incur less trust on behalf of the Americans, never mind how much ordinary people didn’t want him there

Jim Mann
Jim Mann
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jan 15, 2013 9:18pm

I think one issue though is that too many criticisms focus on the “drone” part rather than the civilians killed part of the issue.  Would civilians have been killed if we’d instead had airstrikes (from manned planes)?  From ground raids?  Would more have been killed or fewer. 

We need to find ways to stop killing civilians (and ideally to end the war and stop killing anyone), but what if using drones actually kills fewer people than other possible attack methods?  (I saw one study that claimed they do, but I won’t be convinced until I see more studies.) 

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 2:31am

Kathryn Bigelow is an exceedingly talented director when it comes to putting together a gripping and technically superb film, from setpieces to overall energy. But I have real problems with her abdicating responsibility over the meaning of things: this and “The Hurt Locker” deal with very present, very real and very sensitive situations. I agree that some acknowledgement of this is necessary: movies don’t exist in a vacuum especially if they deal with this sort of thing, and if a creator says he/she isn’t taking a political stance, that’s a stance in itself (and/or is underpinned by underlying assumptions).

(ETA: I know it’s not just Bigelow here and not diminishing the joint responsibility of all esp. Mark Boal, but ultimately as director it’s her name & vision on it, and it does seem consistent with her last work.)

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 5:12pm

I absolutely loved the Hurt Locker and to date it is still one of my favourite films. I think, as others have said, Kathryn Bigelow is a very talented director who should with Zero Dark Thirty get more acclaim than she has done thus far. She brings us films people want to see, which is quite something in this movie era.

I will be watching Zero Dark Thirty the soon as it comes out – it’s one I have been waiting to see for a good couple of months here in the UK now. I accept that the film will have negative views mainly because of the genre and who it deals with. But……… it’s real life made into a film – it’s reality and while little things would have been tweaked for security and other reasons, it’s a film that we will still be raging about come December when we all review the year in film.

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
reply to  Emma
Sat, Jan 12, 2013 10:51am

But what if it’s not reality?  This is what bothers me most about this film, the fact that, because the cameras are shaky and the movie is long, people just accept that it must be the 100% unvarnished truth.  I’ve heard some critics describe it as journalistic; sorry, but if you’re basing your story entirely on the words of one institution that has a pretty obvious bias, that’s no kind of journalism.

Look, I believe the raid to get bin Laden went down more or less as we were told – I’m not one of these people who thinks he wasn’t killed, or he was but if was five years ago and they kept it under wraps for no discernible reason, or he was but he wasn’t bin Laden or any of this other stuff.  But it’s not paranoid to point out that the CIA is an organisation devoted to keeping secrets, and they are currently in the middle of a long campaign combining military, espionage and propaganda exercises of which this is one of the central incidents.  Anyone who thinks we’re going to get a full picture of what was going on less than two years after the event is deluding themselves.  

Bigelow and Boal have made great play of how their two War on Terror films are “nonjudgmental” and “unbiased”.  Based on their interviews, I’d say they could stand to be a little more judgmental – specifically, asking “Who am I talking to, and what would they have to gain by telling us the truth?”

reply to  Der Bruno Stroszek
Thu, Jan 31, 2013 2:44am

 Yeah, I won’t believe we have anything close to the true story when, 20 years from now,  the George Washington University’s National Security Archive submits the required Freedom of Information Act requests and posts the resulting documents.

OH LOOK they have a recently posted collection of documents related to bin Laden.  No really, I didn’t know that until I went there to confirm the link above.  Of course it’s mostly older documents, but still… 

Keep that link.  Some day, you’ll find out what really went on there.  For example, if you’re a little older and were wondering if Gary Webb was right about the Contras smuggling drugs into the U.S. with government knowledge and consent, then look no further than their Iran-Contra file to see it right there in Oliver North’s writing.

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 5:43pm

I’ve been waiting for this forever.  Then I read numerous accounts of how waterboarding and other torture led to finding Bin Laden–which it definitely DID NOT!

I’ll see The Hobbit again and give my money to deserving pictures.

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 6:39pm

Yet there is also the hint that, all evidence to the contrary aside —
we know that torture is not an effective method of interrogation —
torture produced actionable intelligence in the hunt for Bin Laden.

I haven’t seen it, but it seems this film is a bit of a Rorschach test. I’ve read reviews arguing that it does the opposite of implying that torture produces actionable intelligence, and that it’s far from being triumphal or jingoistic (here and here for instance). Perhaps the film leaves its politics open to interpretation? You’ve praised ambiguity before; did you just want this particular film to come down more clearly on one side of the argument?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Fri, Jan 11, 2013 8:45pm

I don’t want it to come down on a side. I would have liked it to present just a hint of the other side that does exist. Going on this movie alone, you’d never know there *is* another side.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Jan 12, 2013 8:15pm

There’s that one scene in the film with Obama’s “We do not torture” speech in the background, and the characters reacting as if they acknowledge the moral quandary their jobs put them in while still being frustrated by the new obstacles they face.

Erin Treat
Sat, Jan 12, 2013 9:17am

I usually love you reviews Maryann, but this movie disgusted me.  Kathryn Bigelow was embedded by the CIA and sold their line to the American people under the guise of a “factual” “unbiased” portrayal of events. They fed her bullshit and she made it into a movie that most people watching will believe.

All she is, is Michael Bay with a bit more talent and taste. He makes recruitment ads for the military and calls them action films. She canonizes murderers and torturers and polishes their alibis and calls it gritty drama. Critics blow their noses at him and jump on the bandwagon behind her.

I really urge people to watch the recent episode of Up with Chris Hayes about this movie or read any of Glen Greenwald’s columns on it.

Matt Clayton
reply to  Erin Treat
Mon, Jan 14, 2013 7:29am

You know, if you didn’t like the fact that we didn’t give bin Laden a fair trial and all that… you could’ve just said that instead.

And you missed the point here. War and politics are full of gray areas… I didn’t see any glorification of murderers and torturers (much like the pro-war Act of Valor did). Bigelow is trying to illustrate the manhunt, the toll it takes on the team, and the aftermath to the best of her abilities, plus some guesswork on how things went. Wouldn’t you be more furious if she cut or ignored the torture and climatic raid on bin Ladin’s fort entirely? And furthermore, you completely ignore that shows like “Alias” and “Lost” also depicted torture with little of the controversy that this film received.

I doubt even Bigelow and Boal were privy to any of the confidential information about the man hunt. There’s a thing called creative license.

David N-T
David N-T
reply to  Matt Clayton
Wed, Jan 16, 2013 11:46pm

Actually, by focussing on the manhunt (more accurately, one side of the manhunt), Bigelow is, in fact, focussing the camera’s gaze -and in so doing, the viewer’s- on the lives of the team and the heroine. Fact of the matter is that Bigelow chose to depict torture as a gray area is deeply problematic in and of itself: in the film, it is depicted as something that desperate investigators resort to in order to get vital information from a known terrorist. In real life, not only did the intel that eventually led to the localisation of Bin Laden not come from torture, but it is most often used against people who are innocent of any wrongdoing as a way to beat a confession out of them and thus justify torture after the fact, nor is it shown to give erroneous information. And fact of the matter is that these so-called gray areas of politics (I’m perfectly wiling to concede that there are gray areas in politics, I just don’t believe that this constitutes one of them) only appear gray within the highly framed boundaries set by tthe film.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Sun, Jan 13, 2013 7:52am

One thing about a movie like this: it sure makes it clear who’s decided that they “know”.

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 12:42am

  I just read Matt Taibbi’s review over at Rolling Stone,  and was wondering about your feelings on this flick.  Now,  having read what you have to say,   I think I’ll just skip it.   My stomach will thank me.

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 2:35pm

When I saw this film, I didn’t once feel like this was a “Go America!” picture.  Correct, there was not a moment in which everyone sat down and had a moral conversation about it, but why does that need to be spoon fed to us?  Considering there are a number of us sitting here feeling disgusted by the torture, the unlawful invasion, the callous  comments about drone strikes, suggests to me that Bigelow did create a film that puts America’s actions into question.  In story telling, you’re always told to show, not tell. The emotions I felt during the torture seems, the heartless reactions the Seal team had towards killing the woman and terrifying the children was enough for me. If a person walks away from that movie thinking, Woah America is Awesome, then I think it says more about  that persons lack of empathy than Bigelow’s ability to make a moral picture.

To me this story really is about a CIA agent who has no identity besides her drive to find Bin Laden. We know absolutely nothing about her other than she was recruited out of high school. Nothing.  And when the mission is over, after everything she has seen and done, she realizes that she is empty. She represents the entire nation’s goal of capturing OBL after 9/11. The blind anger and fear and drive for revenge. And now that he is dead, what do we do now? What have we become? Was any of it worth it? And to me, with her sitting there with no home to go home to, suggests maybe it wasn’t.

David N-T
David N-T
reply to  Alli
Mon, Jan 21, 2013 4:20pm

That it would be portrayed like this goes a long way to show how utterly self-absorbed the film is: it becomes about us, who are holding the gun, and our plight, not about those who were killed by these guns. Is their story not worth telling? Why choose to focus on the victimhood of America and not the victimhood of the trail of dead and crippled bodies left in the wake of the war? Mind you, this is not a recent phenomenon: for instance, the bulk of Vietnam war flicks, even those that are critical of it, conform to this pattern as well.

I mean, imagine for an instant if someone made a film, say, about a cell of Islamic jihadists in the style of Zero Dark Thirty: their methods are dirty and cause immense damage, but their cause is right (remember, this is presented from their point of view) and the viewer is encouraged to sympathize with them, and ultimately, after successfully completing the mission, the one who plans the terrorist attacks feels empty inside, and it all becomes about his plight.

reply to  David N-T
Mon, Jan 21, 2013 5:27pm

I don’t think it’s inappropriate for Americans to think about the moral compromises that have been made for the sake of the “War on Terror.” In fact, I wish more Americans would do it. If some of the people who see the film leave the theatre wondering whether torture is justified, I think that shows the movie was worth making.

Also: Would you go up to someone who lost friends or relatives in the World Trade Center attacks and say, “Why choose to focus on the victimhood of America and not the victimhood of the trail of dead and crippled bodies left in the wake of the war?”

David N-T
David N-T
reply to  Danielm80
Tue, Jan 22, 2013 3:56pm

That doesn’t address my point, which is about the citizens of other countries that are decimated by the US was on terror: their lives are not told, yet their plight is real. Their countries were smashed to pieces. Over and over. Fact of the matter is that torture does a  lot more harm to the person being tortured than to the person doing the torturing. Also, the bulk of people who got rounded up and sent to Gitmo or Baghram and all these other black sites were just ordinary civilians. I have serious objections because I think that the case presented by the film is awfully misleading in a manner that favours torture (nowhere is there any indication that a person being tortured is innocent, that it doesn’t produce reliable intel, that it’s illegal and fundamentally immoral, etc.), and because it shows little concern for the “others”. While I suppose that it’s not unlikely that former torturers will not feel especially good about their actions should they stop and think enough for doubt to set in, I would have a serious problem with a news story that bemoaned how former torturers don’t sleep well at night given the probability that it’s a tiny fraction of the pain and suffering that they inflicted on their victims, who are also likely doing much worse should a journalist bother to visit the survivors.

Torture is not a moral compromise that was done for the sake of the War on Terror: it was endorsed by the Pentagon pre-dating the War on Terror and taught at the School of the Americas for decades, so in this regard, it is best thought of as an escalation of the policy:

The main difference is that before, it was done by covertly by client
states to get rid of people we didn’t like under the guise of fighting
communism, whereas now it’s done on the record directly by US military
personel under direct orders from superiors (to add to those that are
tortured by client states under extraordinary rendition).

And the appeal to emotion in your last question misses the point entirely: first of all, this film is not about the suffering of Americans who lost loved ones in the WTC attacks, but about the hunt for Bin Laden and the toll the War on Terror took on the hunters. Say what you will, but it that it took an immeasurably greater toll on those who were on the receiving end of the War on Terror. Secondly, it doesn’t answer the question. Is the notion so foreign to you that you can’t conceive it?

reply to  David N-T
Thu, Feb 28, 2013 2:40pm

I agree with this. It’s a film exclusively from the American POV, but about an issue that’s affected many more than that. That’s not to say you’re not “allowed” to make a film about one perspective – but equally, it’s then a fair criticism to make of it that it’s not universal, and that diminishes its claim to realism. And on a very sensitive and still current topic, where a striving towards a greater understanding might be deemed even more important.

reply to  David N-T
Mon, Jan 28, 2013 11:53pm

Of course the story is about us.  We’re the audience, and the easiest way into the story is about our feelings.  I’m sure the Vietnamese make very different movies about their American War, and that’s as it should be.

And, of course, the reason that the kind of movie David N-T would prefer doesn’t get made is that very few Americans would pay to watch it.

Dave G
Sun, Jan 20, 2013 10:40pm

I haven’t seen the movie and don’t plan on it. I’ve heard it shows a torture scene and that’s how we got the idea where Bin Laden was. I think in real life, they did some covert detective work and old fashioned information gathering to find him. 

The implication is this, if torture worked to get Bin Laden, then it’s justified to torture some people to get bad guys. The tv show 24 practically rubbed your nose in the idea that torture was the quick and dirty way to get any real actionable intelligence in a short period of time. 
Research shows that torture is ineffective at getting real answers. 

I also don’t think we need to glorify taking Bin Laden out. There never was a trial and we don’t have all the information on him to see if he actually was the mastermind of 9/11. We simply told he was and then the Bush administration backed off of him. Obama got him. Still, the problem remains; we nabbed a potential villain but we did so in a way that defies the American idea of justice. America has taken one more step toward becoming a police state.

Dave G
reply to  Dave G
Sun, Jan 20, 2013 10:48pm

Also, even if torture did produce valid actionable intelligence, it has a huge moral cost. If we become complacent about torture as a means of catching bad guys, we in turn become bad guys ourselves.

Jim Mann
Jim Mann
reply to  Dave G
Wed, Jan 23, 2013 10:07pm

I haven’t yet seen it, so we’re in the same boat here, but from what I read in a detailed review, the torture does not lead them to Bin Laden. 

reply to  Jim Mann
Mon, Feb 11, 2013 9:50am

In the film, torture does not lead to Bin Laden. They buy somebody an expensive car.

BUT. They tortured so many people – that one clue thusly obtained might have lead to Bin Laden – it’s a very real possibilty.

That torture would lead to him was why they tortured from the beginning. Or was that just for revenge?

ruth waterton
Sun, Jan 27, 2013 12:39pm
Mon, Jan 28, 2013 11:49pm

The perspective is of men and women who were just following orders.  They were told to torture, so they tortured.  That’s the job.  Cynical about the moral qualms of the general public and the politicians, with their only concern not to be “the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight commission arrives.”  Pure patriotic careerism, no different from the rank and file of the Gestapo and the NKVD.  I guess we’re as human as anyone else.

Most disturbing scene is not the initial torture sequence, but well into the movie, when Maya is interrogating a prisoner on her own.  When she gets an unsatisfying answer, she nods to her beefcake assistant, who smacks the guy.  Then again.  Routine.  No rage, no passion, just the day’s work.