Zero Dark Thirty: A Sedulous Review of a Fine Movie

PrintI recently watched Zero Dark Thirty with my good friend Kris.  If you’re keeping score, this is Kris’s first appearance in one of my reviews.  It makes sense – he and his wife recently had their first child, and I suppose a newborn has a way of keeping you home and away from movie theaters.  But, with little Alex now being a little older and that whole situation a little more under control, Kris wanted to catch ZDT, and I was more than happy to join him.  After seeing the movie, I’m glad he invited me.

I went into this movie with hardly any expectations.  A friend who had seen it already said it was depressing, but I wanted to take everything with an open mind.  There was a surprisingly large crowd there, as the movie had already been in theaters for a month.  Strangely, most of the patrons were old enough to be my parents.  I’m not sure what that means, but I’m sure it means something.  After some rousing previews, the lights went down and the picture rolled.

The movie kicks off with a black screen and the date, September 11, 2001.  Voices are heard; they are people trapped in the World Trade Center.  A woman frantically calls 9-1-1, and as the dispatcher tries to calm her down, the woman becomes more and more hysterical.  It sounds as though she is in Hell, literally nearly engulfed by flames, death at her doorstep.  She is sure of her impending fate; it is painful to listen to.  Through this single phone call can one imagine the mass chaos, fear and panic those people must have felt as they were trapped in those burning towers.  Thousands of people terrified, sensing their lives were likely over, seeing the flames that would burn or asphyxiate them, probably not realizing many would be crushed to death when the structures fell.

So begins Zero Dark Thirty, an epic intelligence saga that spans nearly ten solid years, and which brilliantly recounts the hunt for and eventual capture of Bin Laden.  This is a great film, the best I’ve seen since Argo – the acting is good, cinematography sharp, and script well written.  But ZDT is more than just another good movie; it is thought provoking beyond any picture I’ve seen in a long time.

I made a special point to address the opening scene because it seems as though the director (Kathryn Bigelow) earnestly wishes for the audience to keep those harrowing moments in mind throughout the show.  For, as exciting and interesting as the movie is, it is a truly grueling story.  It has tension, angst, morally questionable moments….lots of heavy content that gives us just a glimpse of what those intelligence people went through.

For example, when we are introduced to Dan and Maya (two key players in the film), Maya is the new recruit and Dan the savvy, likeable veteran who would train her in interrogation ie torture.  What follows are several scenes of a detainee being water-boarded, sleep deprived, stuffed in a really small box, forced to listen to loud rock music, and other things of that ilk.  These are things that would normally be called “awful”, “cruel” and “unnecessary”.  They were certainly awful and cruel, but were they unnecessary?  I don’t know.

Doubtless, there will be those who say, in light of 9/11, nothing could be too far.  On the other hand, there are those who say some lines should never be crossed, regardless the circumstance.  From a Biblical outlook, one might consider “turning the other cheek”, but then again, are we a Biblical nation any longer?  Were we ever?  Does it really matter?  Are our interrogation techniques too cruel?  Should we avoid torture just to appear better to the rest of the world?  Or should we rather choose different methods so that we appear better to ourselves?  Why were we even attacked in the first place?  These are but a few of the questions raised by the film.

Therein lies the greatness of this picture.  It carries out a retelling of the search for Bin Laden without definitively answering ANY these questions.  It leaves the interpretation up to the viewer.  Too often, it seems like movies carry in them heavy-handed political messages, to their detriment.  It is refreshing to watch a political movie and not be told exactly how I should think.  That is what I like best about Zero Dark Thirty.

On a lighter note, the acting is great, the cinematography is enticing, the script is well written, and the pacing is excellent.  It is a fantastic film, and I hope people will be able to look beyond the morally questionable moments to see this.  My personal take on the torture scenes is that though the content is bad, it could have been much worse.  In fact, I later researched some of the events from the film and came across the infamous Abu Ghraib photos; those are disgusting.  There is something truly unsettling about seeing people happily torturing captives.  It should be noted that none of the characters in ZDT ever seem happy about the interrogations.  They behaved as though they needed information and would stop at nothing to get it.  Is that bad?  Just another question for you to answer.  Before finishing, I must point out that the film is laden with swear words to go along with the scenes of violence, terror, and torture.  This movie is R-rated for a reason.  Leave the kids at home.

So, in closing, ZDT is an excellent film that takes a highly political subject and presents it as neutrally as possible, leaving the thinking up to the viewer.  It is technically very well made, featuring great acting, a great script, wonderful cinematography, and a gripping story.  Go see it.

Grant Stevens is a freelance writer who mostly reviews movies. He also writes the occasional pithy sports column. He also dabbles in writing, recording, and performing music which is cool, I guess. His music can be found here. Feel free to email him with any comments at

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