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Zero Dark Thirty Humbles as it Inspires

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated Apr 16, 2013
<i>Zero Dark Thirty</i> Humbles as it Inspires

DVD Release Date: March 19, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: December 19, 2012 limited; January 11, 2013 wide
Rating: R (for strong violence including brutal disturbing images and torture, and for strong language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 157 min
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle

On May 2, 2011, at "zero dark thirty" (military jargon for an unspecified time between midnight and dawn), U.S. forces raided the secret Pakistani compound of Osama bin Laden, resulting in the death of the terrorist mastermind.  President Obama gave the order. SEAL Team Six killed him. But it was one woman who got him.

It’s fitting, then, that the story of this woman – whose identity as an undercover operative may never be known in our lifetimes – would be told by a woman. Indeed, to the extent future generations comprehend not only this gutsy agent’s mission but, broader still, the War on Terror – in both its macro scope and personal scale – they will in large part have Kathryn Bigelow to thank for it. 

In two films, along with her screenwriting/research collaborator Mark Boal (who shares equal credit in contributing to historical posterity), director Bigelow has given us a dramatized yet veracious record of both fronts in the Terror War. 2009’s Oscar-winning thriller The Hurt Locker recreated the harrowing experience of being a soldier in Iraq (and, by extension, Afghanistan). Now in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow takes us to the other front, the one being fought by undercover CIA agents, interrogators, and special-ops. The one upon which the greatest manhunt in our nation’s history – the search for Osama bin Laden – took place

The film opens with a black screen for a minute or so as we hear an audio collage from September 11, 2001. Screams and cries are heard, sirens, news broadcasts, and fearful 911 pleas that we know will not be answered. It’s an abrupt and disturbing way to start, but it does the job of clearing whatever mental palette you’ve entered the theater with, calibrates you to a proper emotional and moral context for everything that will follow, and does so in a way that reveres rather than exploits the memory of those lost.

From there, Bigelow and Boal condense the 10-year hunt into a near-miraculous three-act structure that immerses us into the process, procedurally and psychologically. The hour-plus first act covers the most terrain, the initial eight years in which information was largely gathered through interrogations. For most of the second hour we zero in on the final two years as the hunt goes from tedious leads and wild goose chases to locking in on a likely target. Then the final thirty-minute stretch takes us through the actual mission itself in near-real time.

The journey begins for us in one of those clandestine interrogations, the first of several that cover in disturbing detail the most controversial techniques, including but not limited to: stress positions, sleep depravation, and most infamously, water-boarding. The film neither approves nor condemns these practices; it simply documents.

This is also where we first meet Maya (Jessica Chastain, The Debt), the alias for the woman who would become the unrelenting force behind the decade-long pursuit, as she is shaken by the quasi-sadistic techniques employed by the interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke, Lawless, in a career-making performance of chilling resolve and conflicted humanity). "Everybody breaks, bro,” he tells an al-Qaeda prisoner, “that’s biology.”

Maya is not weak; her response is human, but her conviction undaunted. Soon enough she takes on the task of grilling people as well, using fellow agents to employ brutal methods on a detainee who’s not forthcoming.  These moments are just one part of a larger intelligence effort, most of which all point back to Abu Ahmed, a man consistently cited as bin Laden’s personal courier – and the hunt for bin Laden becomes as much a hunt for Ahmed as anything else.

At times the search is technical, bureaucratic and tedious, at others dangerous and even lethal.  To watch it all is enough to wear you out and try your patience, a feeling that’s vital to experience so as to appreciate what our agents had to slog through – and what the Bush and Obama administrations had to weigh – for eight long years. Nothing was ever certain, even when leads finally began to coalesce.

The tension ramps substantially when intel and Maya’s instincts start to pay off. We feel the gravity of the stakes, both through Maya’s relentless obsession as well as the Obama administration’s understandable due diligence in the extreme. When the mission order is finally given, it comes abruptly.

Again, as with every carefully crafted moment that has come before, Bigelow plays this in such a way that we don’t merely see the moment but experience it with Maya, even through her. It’s quiet, powerful, and before you know it the choppers are flying out in the dead of night closing in on Osama bin Laden. You can’t help but gird yourself in your seat thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is on.”

There’s that famous photo from the White House situation room in which we saw the President and his team watching the mission on a video stream as it went down (Hillary Clinton famously gasping with hand-to-mouth).  One couldn’t help but look at it and think, "Wow, I wonder what it was like to be in that room." Well now we know, or as close as we ever will, because that’s the feeling you get while watching this sober and meticulously rendered recreation of the raid.

The nearly half-hour play-by-play elicits a reverential yet rapturous hush, punctuated by gasps, and a profound sense of appreciation for the life-and-death uncertainties our armed forces not only walk into but actually execute with both precision and humanity.

Chastain portrays Maya as a petite but formidible powerhouse of brains and will, whose instincts are better than experience – not because of what she feels in her gut but because of how she thinks. This is the kind of role and performance that recalls Jodie Foster in her Oscar-winning prime. Through and by the end of it all we see the toll it takes on Maya, and personally it’s a high one. The film is smart enough to not ask if the toll is worth it or not; it simply allows Chastain to show us that toll. It’s inspiring and heart-breaking.

We don’t know how long it will be before Maya’s true identity will be declassified. She may never be afforded the privilege to receive public recognition for what she has done for our country, for levying justice on behalf of nearly 3,000 Americans killed on 9/11 – or if she does, perhaps only posthumously.

But somewhere, no doubt, she will be watching to see how Americans respond to Zero Dark Thirty. In that anonymity, perhaps, the way people can express gratitude to her is through the purchase of a movie ticket, each stub representing a simple but profound “thank you” to a woman who, as much as anyone, has earned her nation’s admiration, respect, and sacred honor.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Casual consumption of wine and beer. A few instances of cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: The F-word is commonly used, as are most other curse words (S-word, B-word, A-word, etc.).  Profanity is a part of the common vernacular in this environment. A few instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: No sexual content. A tortured prisoner’s pants are pulled down, revealing his naked backside, partially covered in excrement. 
  • Violence/Other: Enhanced interrogation techniques that some classify as torture, both depicted at length as well as seen in video clips. Prisoner bloodied and beaten. A mass shooting of innocents in a hotel by terrorists. The explosion of a London bus. Aftermath of London explosion, with bloodied bodies and victims. A suicide bombing of innocents, including Americans, in the Middle East. An explosion in a hotel, people injured and killed. Two terrorist gunmen shoot at a woman in a car. The raid of bin Laden’s compound, including point-blank killings. Children in the midst of terror-related and military-related peril.

Publication date: January 11, 2013 Movies: Zero Dark Thirty Movie Review from crosswalkmovies on GodTube.