Zero Dark Thirty (2012) by The Critical Movie Critics

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) by The Critical Movie Critics

Model of tenacity.

A cinematic peek behind the curtain of the raid that ended with Osama Bin Laden’s assassination in May 2011 is certainly an intriguing hook for a movie, but it’s far from the whole story that unfolds in Kathryn Bigelow’s tense, taut thriller Zero Dark Thirty. Achieving intimacy in this gigantic narrative about a decade-long manhunt for the most wanted guy on the planet is clearly a priority for Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who find in Jessica Chastain’s Maya a powerful character capable of poignantly personalizing the picture’s patriotism.

We first meet Maya in a torture chamber at an undisclosed location, where she watches her partner Dan (Jason Clarke) attempt to waterboard some information out of a detainee. Maya has a good poker face, but Chastain lets her body do the talking by quietly implying that the torture is tough to stomach and that she’s new to such tactics, or at least to the use of them in such close proximity to her. It’s our first hint at who Maya is and how this experience is constantly shaping her. She’s tough and stiff, but not robotic.

Chastain imbues her character with incredible strength and resolve while subtly suggesting the tender loneliness that lingers beneath the surface. As Maya’s arc becomes increasingly intertwined with Bin Laden’s fate, the job consumes her voraciously, leaving her with nothing but an obsessive and exhausting work ethic. Bigelow and Boal follow Maya so closely that the protagonist’s lack of a social life becomes apparent by means of occupational immersion. She’s working almost every moment she’s on screen. She seems to live without downtime.

Her obsession with finding Bin Laden is chronicled by Boal’s detailed script that carefully, compellingly explores the complications of an investigation enabled almost entirely by shots in the dark. The challenges of extracting even just a sliver of potential intel are expertly communicated as Maya and the rest of the team chase down every lead they can get their hands on and still find themselves hitting a wall at nearly every turn. Boal completely embraces the complexities of such a search for answers and hurls us into the time-consuming processes of sifting through footage and documents for any thing close to resembling a clue.

The rhythms of the investigation feel distinctly fresh and it is this uniqueness of procedural pacing that I find so impressive. Leads take a long time to come into focus and when some new piece of the puzzle is added, Boal tosses jargon at us and expects us to keep up. The lack of effort to fill us in on every bit of info the CIA agents spew automatically is actually invigorating, but that still makes it a gamble, just one that pays off. By lobbing the jargon at us and showing the characters perform tactics with explanations of their actions described only to each other, Bigelow and Boal essentially make us an honorary member of the team.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) by The Critical Movie Critics

Resting before the raid.

This sensation filters through the narrative all the way to the raid, where all of Bigelow and Boal’s hard work to develop a personal connection to the story proves profoundly moving. Even though Maya doesn’t climb into the helicopter for the nighttime raid or pull any physical triggers (just metaphorical ones instead), her presence is felt throughout the sequence and her triumph is big and bold and undeniable. As Maya’s decade-long journey comes to a close, the raid takes on an emotional energy that stems from having traveled so far with her. That Zero Dark Thirty achieves such a striking dramatic conclusion without Maya even being on screen for most of the finale is a testament to Chastain’s astonishing performance and the growing emotional identity that she is able to lend to the entire movie from the start.

The raid sequence itself is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking that ranks among Bigelow’s sharpest achievements as a director. Lit so precisely that the night appears genuinely dark and disorienting without overcompensation to heighten the images, the sequence is also constantly switching over to the night vision perspectives of the raid team that take out every threat with fierce efficiency. We snake around corners of the compound building, following the team’s every move, seeing the events unfold in near real time. When we finally arrive at Bin Laden’s hiding spot, he is taken out in the same efficient manner as all the others. Bigelow doesn’t reserve any slow-motion theatrics for the big moment and doesn’t try to hit any final note of enthusiastic jingoism. She simply lets the moment happen and then ties it back into Maya’s concluding arc.

So Zero Dark Thirty returns to Maya, where it all began. Her participation gives this epic tale a sense of perspective and that much-needed counteracting intimacy. Chastain’s brilliantly tuned performance (thunderous one moment, nearly silent another) contains so much strength and determination all crammed into her tiny frame and she wears these attributes with a fiery passion that can be unleashed when necessary. She’s our guide through this treacherous hunt, a face we can trust and root for. She leads the way with confident grace. For nearly ten years, Maya searches for Bin Laden. For nearly three hours, we live the journey with her. This is time, cinematically condensed and powerfully personalized.

Critical Movie Critic Rating:
5 Star Rating: Fantastic


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'Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)' have 17 comments

  1. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 3:31 pm Griffey

    Kathryn Bigelow needs another Middle Eastern war if she plans to continue directing…

  2. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 3:44 pm Joe Consford

    Powerful movie.

  3. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 3:52 pm Whispy

    I actually thought the actually raid felt tacked on. It had no tension, no drama- it was just a means to show Chastain’s work paid off in the end.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      January 16, 2013 @ 4:48 pm Albie

      The movie HAD to have an ending…she didn’t hit it out of the park like the reviewer thinks but it’s definitely dramatic enough.

  4. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 4:19 pm FlyStyle

    Jessica Chastain is getting all the accolades but Jason Clarke as her handler is even more deserving. It is frighening how believable he was during the torture stuff.

  5. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 4:32 pm CMG44

    Bigelow improved upon the weaknesses of Hurt Locker and got it right with Zero Dark Thirty. It’s intense in all the right places and getting a sneak peek into the inner workings of the government was fascinating.

  6. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 5:26 pm Replicant

    Chastain locked the Oscar up with her portrayal of Maya. Determined, cold, fearless.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      January 17, 2013 @ 3:35 am Melinda

      I can agree wth that, She was remarkable.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      March 22, 2013 @ 8:16 pm ChatterHead

      I have no idea how Jennifer Lawrence took the honors. The role of Maya was much deeper and the greater challenge.

  7. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 6:00 pm Faranya

    For all the hype throughout the movie, the raid on the compound didn’t deliver.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      January 16, 2013 @ 9:51 pm Jorell

      Not sure it really had to. ZDT is the story of the monumental effort to get to the raid …

  8. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 6:22 pm Squidward

    I dig strong, independent chicks.

  9. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 16, 2013 @ 7:06 pm StephenHallson

    It’s a fine movie from a production point of view I reckon, I am just not a fan of the sensationalizing of this operation or any military effort. As a documentary this would be better served.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      January 16, 2013 @ 9:27 pm Tobbe

      Whats even more telling was the quiet stance taken on physical torture. It didn’t work if you remember–information on the courier was only retrieved when they tricked their prisoner into believing the coordinated attack was foiled. How true that is remains to be told.

  10. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 17, 2013 @ 11:43 am brimstone

    I’m a fan of how she continues to portray the American military as back-slappin’ cowboys.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      January 22, 2013 @ 12:18 pm Endrick

      Back-slappin’ cowboys were in Brokeback Mountain, not Zero Dark Thirty. I believe the military got a fair depiction, the beaurocrats on the other hand came off as weak and opportunistic.

  11. The Critical Movie Critics

    January 17, 2013 @ 4:08 pm NegativeX

    Its amazing this was successful.

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