Zero Dark Thirty

zero dark thirtyReleased: 2013
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt

Brilliantly acted and very well made but no emotional connection


I’m doing my best to catch up with as many of the films and performances in this year’s Oscar race before February 24th. I’ve managed Lincoln, Les Miserables (for the second time) and The Impossible in the past few days.  I may have missed the boat on The Master, Argo and Amour but if it’s still on locally I’ll get to it. I was really glad to have made it to Zero Dark Thirty before it disappeared from the local multiplex and have the opportunity to make up my own mind about what is probably the most controversial of the Best Picture nominees.

Zero Dark Thirty takes place over a period of eight years and follows CIA operative Maya in her single minded search for Osama Bin Laden. Maya is assigned to the Pakistan Embassy and is involved in torture and interrogation of suspected al-Qaeda operatives; through the information gathered from detainees she comes to believe that the key to finding Bin Laden is through a messenger named Abu Ahmed. From 2003 to 2011 Maya faces both physical and political obstacles in her quest to track down the world’s most wanted man.

I struggled deciding what rating to give Zero Dark Thirty. I appreciated the immense talent and the craft that went into making the film but I’m not sure if I can say that I entirely enjoyed it. The acting, particularly by Jessica Chastain as Maya and Jennifer Ehle as her colleague Jessica, was superb but it was hard to warm to the characters. We should have been on the side of the CIA operatives, they were hunting down Bin Laden – that should have made them the good guys but they weren’t particularly sympathetic. Opening with a nasty torture scene didn’t endear the viewer to the CIA but it wasn’t just that, the main characters were completely one dimensional and that made it difficult for the audience to make any emotional connection with them.

I didn’t buy into the argument though that the film was pro-torture propaganda. Scenes of torture were shown and that made me feel very uncomfortable, but they weren’t presented as either good or bad – merely as facts of life in the US war on terror. To be honest, the focus on the torture have allowed other failings of Zero Dark Thirty to go unmentioned.

It’s a long film, and it feels long. At one point I wondered if it was unfolding in real time and I was actually sitting through all eight years of Maya’s hunt for Bin Laden. Three hours parking was never going to be enough for this film. I also had a major problem with the depiction of Maya. By 2010/11 she is hardened, determined operative yet she has daily fits of pique in the office and her superiors seem to think this is fine. Why is it ok to depict women like this? I’m sure the CIA officers that this character is based on don’t actually behave like this in meetings so why is deemed acceptable to portray them as tantrum throwing children? On a similar note – do female CIA station chiefs really bake birthday cakes for al-Qaeda double agents?

Moments that I think were supposed to come as shocks to the vast majority of the audience (except for those with an in-depth knowledge of military events in Pakistan and Afghanistan) were signposted at least ten minutes in advance and there was little real tension and of course we all know how the story actually ends so there’s no surprise there.

Undoubtedly this is a brilliantly acted and fantastically well-crafted film from Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow but its failure to connect with the audience on an emotional level means that while it’s a very good film, it’s not a great one and certainly not the best of the year.

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  1. Yeah, pretty much agree with all of this.

  2. Spot on review! I liked the movie but had the same difficulty connecting with the characters.

    • Thanks, given the great acting and production values I think an emotional connection with the characters could have made this a perfect film. Missed opportunity for brilliance.

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