Zero Dark Thirty


by Justin Jasso (@jjasso007)

There are certain national events that occur in the lives of people, which when asked where you were on that date, you can recall every detail. For some it is the JFK assassination, for others it was the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. For everyone who has been alive over the last twenty years, it is “Where were you and what were you doing when you heard about the World Trade Center being attacked?” Eleven years after that fateful event, the man behind the World Trade Center attack was found in Pakistan by U.S. Forces. Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) brings the story of the eleven-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden to the screen in her most recent film, Zero Dark Thirty, interweaving historical information with a little fiction to bring the capture of one of the most sought after men in history, to life.

The film begins with a black screen with frantic voices playing from 9/11, culminating in only two women speaking: a woman on one of the upper floors who knows she’s going to die and an operatory trying to comfort her, knowing there’s nothing she can do. Two years later, at a CIA black site, we’re introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she witnesses fellow operative Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a detainee. In order to get information, Dan resorts to sleep deprivation, waterboarding, pulling down his pants in front of Maya, and putting a dog collar around his neck and walking him like a dog. No matter the strength of a man, everyone eventually breaks. It’s biology.

Eventually, Dan grows tired of his position and decides to return to America to work, which propels Maya into his role. She is committed to finding and killing bin Laden at all costs. She’s Ahab and he’s the White Whale. Although Maya may appear “weak,” she’s full of intelligence which aids her cause. Time and time again, she finds patterns in detainee testimony which lead her to bigger fish, eventually leading to the pursuit of one man, bin Laden’s main courier: Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti. Upon finding that al Kuwaiti is still alive after being believed to have been killed eight years earlier, they are able to track him down to a compound in Pakistan. The compound is fortified well, prohibiting external surveillance of any sort. When asked by top government brass whether bin Laden is in the compound, Maya gives a 100% yes, not based on physical evidence, but based on her knowing bin Laden inside and out over twelve years of trailing him. The President then gives the go and the SEAL team goes in for the final showdown with Osama bin Laden.

Bigelow takes a similar approach to Zero Dark Thirty as she did with The Hurt Locker. Less emphasis is put on action and more is put on character growth and storytelling. She’s also very good at creating that white knuckle tension in scenes where you anticipate something bad happening but just aren’t sure if, and when, it will occur. A primary example is the Camp Champman attack scene. A meeting was set up on the base with a doctor for bin Laden who was loyal to the Americans and wanted to help capture him. They were to go over details to gain further information as well as the whereabouts of bin Laden himself, but the doctor ended up being a double agent and detonated a bomb, killing seven CIA operatives, including the chief of the base and wounding six others. From the moment the car carrying the doctor shows up late to the time given to certain shots and character body language, the audience knows something isn’t right but still believes it should work out as this was arranged. But in the war on terror, nothing is ever certain.

Zero Dark Thirty’s cinematography is done in such a way that you are pulled right into the events as they take place. From being inside the interrogation rooms and witnessing the various methods of obtaining information to being in the markets and streets throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, you are put right into the scene. Most of the filming is done on handheld cameras, but there isn’t the motion sickness garnered from other handheld camera films. And during the final thirty minutes of the film as the SEAL teams break into the compound, you’re put into the night vision first-person view, able to witness the tension and suspense felt by the SEALs as they sweep the compound, encountering people armed around corners until the final encounter with bin Laden.

As it is certain Daniel Day Lewis will be nominated (and the front runner) for a Best Actor nomination, so to should Jessica Chastain for her role as Maya. She grows from being a more timid field agent who doesn’t want to witness the interrogations to a rough and hard woman who has her prime directive in sight with no problem calling out her own boss to his face and even using profanity when speaking to the Director of the CIA. But Chastain’s performance goes beyond that. Beneath her “strength” lies a vulnerability that’s seen away from her colleagues and away from the field. It’s shown during times when she realizes more and more her own fragility in this war, knowing she can be killed at any time, but also with her inner struggle as she goes without having any friends or anyone she can really talk to about what it is she deals with. And being that the story revolves around the character of Maya, it was important for whoever played this role to absolutely nail it, as the success of the film really falls on her, and Chastain does just that. It’s hard to imagine another actress in that role and being as successful. Major kudos to her for this wonderful portrayal.

Without a doubt, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best films of 2012. And even with the film running over two and a half hours long, it seems to be over in a blink of an eye. That’s how engaged one becomes with this film. Bigelow makes us take every step of the journey that Maya takes in a way only the best filmmakers are able to do, putting us in her shoes and she makes choices that determine life and death, success and failure. Zero Dark Thirty may have just taken my vote for best film of the year, best director as well as best actress in a leading role while, at the same time, giving me insight and a history lesson I won’t soon forget!

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


  1. WhitneyJanuary 7th, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I wish the review would have discussed more in-depth that the movie doesn’t introduce a “little fiction”. It is overwhelmingly fiction and erroneously suggests that torture led the to location of Osama Bin Laden. Torture did not – in any way – produce actionable intelligence on Osama Bin Laden.

  2. Jayme VJanuary 7th, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    If you enjoyed the film, you might be interested to learn that the Stealthhawks featured in the movie were almost entirely CGI re-skins of actual photography featuring Blackhawk helicopters. They gave us designs for what a top-secret Stealthhawk ‘might’ look like, and we composited these CGI helicopters for the final act of the film. Nerd knowledge! It was actually incredibly difficult to make black helicopters read against night time scenery, and still look realistic. A fun challenge, and an honor to be a part of this wonderful film.

  3. JustinJanuary 8th, 2013 at 11:34 am

    I personally didn’t take the film as suggesting that torture was the reason we were able to capture Osama Bin Laden. On the contrary, the torture scenes took place during the first third of the film and not much was gleamed from these sessions.

    As for how much of the film is fiction and how much is based on actual events, after researching online, it seemed the filmmakers were able to gain information from sources close to the events occurring over the 11 year period. Of course, the film was not going to be 100% accurate as much is still classified at this point. But, as a filmmaker, you take what you are given and try to tell a story as realistically as possible filling in details as you progress using deductive reasoning.

    Overall, it is a film and a work of art and should be taken as such. As far as entertainment, it provided just that and I felt it was an exceptional film overall.

    Jayme – GREAT work with the helicopters. You all brought it to life!

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