What a thrill to be reviewing the movie at the center of a huge political controversy! Zero Dark Thirty is a great piece of film making, but since it is about a significant episode of our recent history, and purported to be based on “first hand accounts” of the people who were there, there is the expectation that it will be treated in a documentary fashion, with no artistic license allowed. The major kerfuffle is all about whether the use of waterboarding during the Bush years actually gave the intelligence people any credible information that ultimately led to Bin Laden. The film suggests that it did and lots of our people in the government beg to differ, and that question swirls around the film obscuring the more important question — for a viewer, does it matter? Does a really well made thriller “based on actual events” demand authenticity? I was gripped by this movie from the first shot until the end, and the torture scene was to me just a great device for introducing the audience to the main character and the world she was entering.

We meet CIA recruit Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she arrives in Pakistan in 2003 and is brought into the controversial torture session. She is young and new to this world, and reacts to the barbarity of what she is seeing, but only for a while. As she assumes her new role in the intelligence bureau, she becomes known as the one obsessed with finding Bin Laden, even when her boss wants her to move on to other things. The film takes place over eight years, but Maya is a dog with a bone. She is absolutely certain she can find UBL, as they call him, and nothing and nobody can get in her way — not her bureaucrat station chief (Kyle Chandler), not even the Director of the CIA Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini). She combs through piles of intelligence, leaves no lead unfollowed, and pushes her agenda forward despite all odds. Her colleagues are blown up. She survives an assassination attempt and a bombing. But her faith eventually does pay off.

Bigelow is masterful at suspense. The Navy Seal raid that kills Bin Laden is amazingly tense, even though we all know how it turned out. By the time the film arrives at the compound, the audiences has already been jarred by several bomb blasts that come out of nowhere, assassins with guns bursting into places, and the general sense that violence is possible at any time, so knowing that this group of men who seem like really good guys are going into the fortress that houses one of the most evil people of our time has the audience on the edge for the whole operation, which is shot in real time.

I’d recommend Zero Dark Thirty for its pure entertainment value. It’s a brilliantly directed film about the pains-taking work that led to the death of America’s greatest enemy of this century. For me, the torture scene is just one tiny part of it, and as I saw it, not the key to finding Bin Laden. Real intelligence work was what did it, and this movie shows just how mundane it can be and how a leap of faith and tenacity made all the difference. Jessica Chastain is an interesting choice as Maya, small, pretty, very well put together, and seemingly the least likely to go into a war zone, but when she turns on the fire, stand back. It is a great performance. Bigelow (who was shockingly not Oscar-nominated for her direction, though the film was) has made an incredibly engaging thriller. See it! You’ll be riveted.

One thought on “Zero Dark Thirty”
  1. I thoroughly enjoyed ZD30 and agree that it’s a captivating, well-directed film. But a part of me would rather have seen it a few years hence. I just think it’s too soon to give this particular story the full-on dramatization treatment. The torture ‘debate’ is still fresh, and the key players are still fighting the good fight. And our enemies are still out there looking for any excuse to attack us and martyr Bin Laden. To me, “Argo” is the better choice for a tight, entertaining, political thriller that spotlights a modern victory for the intelligence community. Both are worth seeing. I just happen to like Argo better. And I am flabbergasted that Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck were snubbed by the Academy for Best Director nods.

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