December 18, 2012


Kathryn Bigelow‘s previous film, The Hurt Locker, opened with the statement, “war is a drug.”  Like The Hurt Locker and her earlier film K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow’s new picture, Zero Dark Thirty, deals with a deadly obsession created in wartime.  But unlike Hurt Locker and K-19, Zero Dark Thirty exists on a different battlefield—one of intelligence gathering, subterfuge, shady tactics, and misinformation.  It’s a battlefield that is arguably more lethal than what we’ve seen before.  It’s not where we place our troops.  It’s where we place our citizens, and every moment in a post-9/11 world is a time bomb waiting to explode.  In this world, Bigelow has crafted a thrilling and disturbing tale about how deeply an obsession can warp an individual, and how far we’re willing to go for the illusion of safety.

The film opens on a black screen as we’re forced to listen to the 911 calls made by those who were in the World Trade Center on September 11th.  This potent reminder leads us into the next scene, which takes place two years later as neophyte agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) receives a brutal lesson in how the CIA operates.  After witnessing the torture of a detainee at the hands of fellow agent (Jason Clarke), the broken-down captive eventually releases the name of a man who might be the key to finding Osama Bin Laden (although it’s worth noting that this revelation comes not during the torture, but through trickery and non-violent interrogation).  From this point, Mark Boal‘s script reads like a classified report as we continue jumping forward in time to key points in the battle to find the most wanted man in U.S. history.


The structure of the story is one of the film’s greatest strengths and also it’s only weakness.  Because it comes off as a report, Zero Dark Thirty is matter-of-fact in its observations.  We are witnessing key events in Maya’s mission, but her only life is the mission.  It puts us perfectly inside Maya’s head as a woman with no world beyond the agency.  After being recruited right out of high-school, Maya’s entire focus is the hunt for Bin Laden.  It’s a quixotic mission that becomes increasingly unhinged as Maya continues to focus on one man who has become a smaller piece in the expanding War on Terror.  These facts are enough to convey the point, and what isn’t deemed pertinent are the blacked-out sections of this classified report.  We know exactly as much as we need to know.

This also creates the film’s biggest hurdle, which is throwing up an emotional barrier.  Zero Dark Thirty can be cold, calculating, and methodical in its methods as we trek across a 10-year journey to catch a man that some thought had perished well before his death on May 2, 2011.  The events feel so much bigger than any of the characters, and we can only witness the futility of their mission as terrorist acts continue to happen.


Our lifeline to the emotional heart of the film is Chastain.  She is absolutely essential in making Zero Dark Thirty more than a dramatization of the events leading up to Bin Laden’s death.  She is the face of the hunt, and over the course of the story we see the toll it takes on her.  More importantly, we see it without having to take time out for “personal” matters.  There’s no love-interest, there’s no phone call with parents, there’s not even a framed picture on her desk.  There is only the transformation of someone born into the 9/11 world and then consumed by the hunt for its creator.  It is a masterful performance, and it is the key to not only the emotions of the film, but its larger points.

Zero Dark Thirty has come under fire for supposedly being “pro-torture”, and such a claim misses the subtext of the picture (so it’s not surprising that the claim has been made by people who haven’t actually seen the movie).  This isn’t 24.  The torture is meant not only to make the viewer uncomfortable, but also contemplative.  A scene of torture directly follows the calls of the 9/11 victims.  Torture happened, and this ugliness didn’t come out of the ether.  It came from how Bin Laden warped our values, and it foreshadows how the hunt for Bin Laden will warp Maya.


That’s the importance of the scene, and it’s emblematic of how Bigelow handles the movie.  The structure may be impartial, but we’re meant to see it through Maya’s eyes.  We have to identify with Maya and her world; we don’t have to like it.  There’s a complexity to this world, and it’s a miracle that despite the red tape, the competing agendas, and the questionable intel, we still shot Bin Laden in the face.

This isn’t a rah-rah story, and despite the outcome, it isn’t even a happy one.  Even during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, we’re not excited or counting down to Bin Laden’s death.  Bigelow creates an air of tension so palatable that it feels like we’re in the compound.  In the span of thirty minutes, Bigelow has encapsulated everything that came before: a hunt, locked doors, shifting tactics, encroaching external forces, and violence that could happen at any moment.  Creating brilliant subtext from popular thrills is Bigelow’s talent, and she has created a movie that’s even better than The Hurt Locker.


After I heard Bin Laden had been killed, I didn’t feel the catharsis of some of my friends, especially those who had been in New York or had lost someone in the attacks.  For me, it was a rhetorical question: “Is the war on terror over now?”  What did killing Bin Laden accomplish?  Did it end terrorism?  What did this mission mean beyond what was arguably a personal vendetta?  Killing Bin Laden was the right thing to do.  He was a soldier on a battlefield of his own making, and he deserved to die horribly on it.  But the battlefield didn’t go away.  So what’s next?  And when you define your life by the death of another, how can your life continue?  Does obsession ever end?  Zero Dark Thirty has no easy answers, nor should it.

Rating: A-


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  • the guy with the ski mask

    i get your whole thing matt, but didnt you also feel it was a a little forced ? i really like jessica chastin but i could see her tricks in this movie. the only thing in this movie that was good was the raid. it was a mess before that. i didnt care about anyone in the movie, there was nothing human about that script, up untilthe raid.


    • Tmo

      Agreed, other than what you said this movie to me feels like it was thrown together quickly to make a quick buck off of a major event while it was still fresh in the minds of the US.

      • randommale

        they were developing a movie about the hunt for Osama before he was killed and it would have an open ending, when they had almost finished pre-production he was killed so they had change it to the movie it is now. Pre-production usually takes a year so it was’t just thrown together.

  • fitzchiv

    the word you were looking for was ‘palpable’ not ‘palatable’.

  • American Patriot

    God Bless our Righteous Christian Death Squads dispensing American-style freedom and democracy to the peoples of the world whether they want it or not. It fills my heart with Patriotic zeal to think how Jesus himself wept for joy when we smote our enemies and tortured them!

    • Weeks

      Kinda like how American liberals like to force their vision of utopia on everyone else in their own country, whether they want it or not, huh?

  • Bleezy Bo

    I don’t mean to be the hipster, but Mr. Goldberg how can something be “it’s greatest strength and only weakness?” I understand that the structure of the film is akin to a report and lacks of emotional punch, but a film’s only purpose is to create emotion within the viewing audience.

    So I’m unsure how such a glaring error in Zero Dark Thirty can be considered a strength.

  • Ivanhoe

    hope is not again overrated as Hurt Locker

    • AManWithAKilt

      Overrated by some.

  • Willie

    “It’s a battlefield that is arguably more lethal than what we’ve seen before. It’s not where we place our troops. It’s where we place our citizens, and every moment in a post-9/11 world is a time bomb waiting to explode.”

    I stoped reading after this statement. Matt Goldberg is a damn fool! It’s exactly the type of shit that the U.S. government wants us to believe. Creating fear by faking boogeymen. Boo-hoo, wake up! Bigelow is a hack, and a mediocre director. Her films have an agenda and are military propaganda piece of shit.

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  • Tol

    The suggestion is made that torture was never used before ‘….Bin Laden warped our values.’

    Really? You are suggesting the only reason the US ever started torturing any kind of suspect was only after Bin Laden came on the scene? Never before that?

    It looks like a really interesting movie. After the Hurt Locker’s totally inaccurate and unbelievable portrayal of Bomb disposal in Iraq, I can only hope this movie sticks to the facts.

  • steven austin… that’s my real name, MR. GOLDBERG

    HEY KIDS, LOOK!!! it’s a non-franchise GOLDBERG review!!! That means he might actually see the movie like the rest of us this time and not way up their from his high horse. Kudos on not telling us that Bigelow didn’t understand her material as well as you did. You kinda like to do that a lot, way to show restraint.

  • steven austin… that i’s stil my real name, MR. GOLDBERG

    there, not ‘their’. i am quick to type, quicker to proof read. You’re still a tool, GOLDBERG

  • American Patriot

    I shed a tear watching our righteous Christian warriors dispense the almighties justice to the infidel. The world needs ‘merican style religions and freedoms and by Jesus we’ll give it to ‘em. I can only fault Bigelow for not showing the courageous urination our beloved heroes conducted on Osama’s corpse. Can’t win ‘em all I guess.

    • josh

      Shut up Donny, you’re out of your element.

    • GunzOfNavarone


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  • max schwartz

    This reviewer is dangerously ignorant. “The torture is meant not only to make the viewer uncomfortable, but also contemplative. A scene of torture directly follows the calls of the 9/11 victims. Torture happened, and this ugliness didn’t come out of the ether. It came from how Bin Laden warped our values” — that doesn’t mean anything. You just put the blame for the film, and for American use of torture itself, wholly upon bin Laden, which is beyond ridiculous to the point of obscenity. Like almost every other American author writing on this film, you pardon it willfully. There is a reason British media called it “CIA hagiography, pernicious propaganda” and in their headline, no less.

  • Less Silly Than Thou


    Even as David Edelstein, the film critic for New York magazine, named “Zero Dark Thirty” the best movie of 2012 in a recent article, he digressed to say that it “borders on the politically and morally reprehensible,” because it “makes a case for the efficacy of torture.” Edelstein isn’t the only critic in a morally complicated swoon over “Zero Dark Thirty.” Last week the New York Film Critics Circle awarded it the best movie of the year. So did the National Board of Review. Surprises atop surprises: not only does “Zero Dark Thirty” decline to toe a conventionally liberal line, but it is being embraced by many cultural arbiters who are probably at some level horrified by the conclusions it seems to reach.

    **Will they wrestle honestly with that, as Edelstein did?** Or will they elect unsullied rapture for “Zero Dark Thirty” and either ignore or come up with a selective interpretation of its policy implications?

    (… I guess we know the answer in Matt Goldberg’s case.)

  • Joseph M

    Yeah, lot of talk about this crap. This is a fiction about a fiction (most wanted in the world captured, murdered and buried at sea with no recorded proof!) made by a Department of Defense funded charlatan who’ll do anything it takes to get the gullible hating Muslims and lovin’ the army and the CIA. I just don’t know why Collider’s got such a hard-on for it. Between this trash and the upcoming White House In Peril From (Brown) Terrorists onslaught, it looks like good old Hollywood propaganda is alive and well. First the evil Native Americans killing heroic cowboys, then the nasty Russians killing democracy (or we’ll blow you up) lovin’ Americans and now malevolent Muslims.
    On the upside, this isn’t the 50’s or the 80’s. Less gullible drones around paying to see, and believing these insidious anal expulsions called films.

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  • Zachrifice

    One main reason why this film is easily the best film of the year and one of the best in recent memory – it manages to stay perfectly middle grounded politically with very bi-polar subject matter. That in itself is a very difficult task to accomplish.

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