Review: Zero Dark Thirty

ZERO DARK THIRTY recounts the pursuit and capture of Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader held accountable for the events which took place on September 11, 2001.

There is a disquieting storm surrounding the new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Kathryn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER) explores the ten year search for the man held responsible for the devastating tragedy that took place at the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Many a filmmaker might have taken on this sensitive material with a more sensationalized approach. Thankfully Bigelow manages to create a high tension tale of CIA Operatives and their desperate search to capture a terrorist in hiding. She offers a very compelling and morally complex take on a story which spanned two American presidential administrations.

Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a young CIA officer whose job is to find terrorists. Clearly it would be impossible for Bigelow to use the real names of those involved so Maya is “based” on a real person. Chastain is perfect as a woman whose life has become all about finding bin Laden. She creates a character that is at once conflicted about the torture of an Al Qaeda detainee, yet defiant that they must do everything in their power to complete their mission, and that is to track down and kill bin Laden. The task proves to be one that will most likely haunt Maya for as long as she lives, as well as those around her.

Screenwriter and producer Mark Boal and Bigelow immediately create a harrowing story with the “enhanced interrogation” of Ammar, a captured Al Qaeda member played brilliantly by Reda Kateb. Jason Clarke plays the CIA Op who questions and tortures the man suspected of having connections with bin Laden. These early scenes are especially uncomfortable for the viewer, yet they never feel exploitative. When Dan (Clarke) tells Ammar what will happen if he doesn’t tell the truth, there is real sense of horror for the prisoner – even though he was so close to the Sept. 11 attacks.

As the movie progresses, we follow what is essentially a detective story. Clues are followed and sometimes they help, yet other times they can be gravely serious mistakes. Thankfully, Chastain gives what might very well be her best performance to date. It would be almost impossible to really relate to Maya, as it is unimaginable the choices she would be called upon to make. However, deep within her delicate voice and soft features we see the driven and powerful woman that she is. As the central character, she effectively gives this story its human element. This is a powerhouse performance that reminds us why Chastain is one of the most compelling actresses in recent years.

Aside from Chastain, the rest of the cast is equally impressive. Jason Clarke (both Clarke and Chastain starred in this year’s LAWLESS) is perfect as a man who is assigned to do a painfully difficult job. His work opposite Kateb is fantastic. And while Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Elhe are also quite terrific, the story begins and ends with Maya and her overpowering need to find a needle in a haystack as it were. Thankfully Bigelow is able to create a real sense of honesty in all of the performances. This is especially true for some of the members of the NAVY SEALS who are brought in to carry through on the ultimate goal, including the always reliable Joel Edgerton.

While not a traditional action film, Bigelow creates an astounding level of suspense. Oftentimes you know exactly what is going to happen, yet it builds and builds to its ultimate conclusion in an excruciatingly tension fueled way. How much of this story is absolutely accurate, I’m not entirely sure. Yet there is a very distinct sense that the research done is remarkably close to the events leading up to the cinematic and of course, real life conclusion. ZERO DARK THIRTY (military jargon for the dark of night) is a pulse-pounding look at the pursuit and capture of the elusive Osama bin Laden. Ethically challenging and smartly crafted with an award worthy performance from Chastain, this is certainly one of the best and most provocative films of 2012.

Review: Zero Dark Thirty




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JimmyO is one of’s longest-tenured writers, with him reviewing movies and interviewing celebrities since 2007 as the site’s Los Angeles correspondent.