Maya, a tenacious CIA agent (Jessica Chastain) searches for world's most wanted man: Osama Bin Laden, against the background of terrorist attacks against Western targets. Director Kathryn Bigelow does a masterful job of blending tension and action with the sometimes tedious processes of data analysis and surveillance (the film compresses eight years of searching for the 9-11 mastermind into 160 minutes). Chastain is excellent as the driven analyst and the film wisely wastes no time on her life outside the search (i.e. no gratuitous romance, personal affairs, etc). The rest of the cast is also quite good, especially Jennifer Ehle as Maya's colleague Jessica. The lengthy climatic set-piece, as the special-ops team move in on bin Laden's compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan is outstanding. The film was controversial for its depiction of torture (aka 'enhanced interrogation techniques') as an effective 'necessary evil' in the 'war on terrorism'. 'Ends vs. means' arguments aside, 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a riveting adventure with some great action sequences, but I admit that I have a very non-PC love for films like this and that some people might find the film repugnant (especially the first half-hour).
Reviewed by rooee6 / 10
Propaganda done properly
Zero Dark Thirty is a procedural CIA-based thriller in the mould of TV's Homeland. This film, however, is based on real-life events, so it doesn't have the benefit of being able to withhold in the way Homeland's first series did with Twin Peaks-like delectation. What Zero Dark Thirty does have is a narrative based on first-hand accounts, and it makes no explicit judgement about the content of those accounts. We simply get to see what (apparently) happened during the manhunt for "UBJ".
The film's lack of polemic is both a blessing a curse. It's a blessing because it's rare that a film dealing with such volatile subject matter is depicted procedurally. Usually when a narrative is made ostensibly apolitical it's as a result of an unconvincing moral rebalancing, where the filmmakers go to great lengths to present both sides fairly. But Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow's disinterest is also a curse because, in avoiding judgement, it surreptitiously falls firmly on the side of the CIA. It shows what it's allowed to show, but keeps their secrets ("undisclosed location" and all that); and it portrays the operatives as the honourable front-liners getting their hands dirty (but not bloody), beyond moral reproach by virtue of hard graft. In Bigelow's world, it's the suits in Washington who have the blood in their hands - they're disconnected, as evidenced when torture-specialist Dan (Jason Clarke) returns to US headquarters from the field and loses his nerve, becoming a man of soft probabilities.
Clarke is solid but lost amidst superior talent, as he was in John Hillcoat's recent Lawless. Jessica Chastain delivers a nuanced performance. Driven professionals in films often come across as stolid, but Chastain is an actor of subtlety - even if Bigelow can't help lensing her like a wind-swept movie star in the Middle Eastern magic light. Jennifer Ehle uses her moon-faced radiance to good effect, filling her eager operative Jessica with youthful energy. There's a fair amount of distracting spot-the-cameo going on, particularly toward the end, when Joel Edgerton, Mark Duplass and James Gandolfini turn up.
Bigelow's directorial talent is never in doubt. The final sequence in particular is harrowingly tense, even though we know the outcome. And she generally gets the best out of actors. But make no mistake: this is a deeply patriotic film which is cheering for the home team, and it does so under the guise of objectivity, which makes it more manipulative than flag-waving fare like Last Ounce of Courage or Act of Valor, albeit much more skilfully made.
Reviewed by classicsoncall8 / 10
"In the end, everybody breaks Bro. It's biology."
While watching, I began to form the opinion that the character of Maya wasn't a single, specific person who might have 'broken' the case of finding Usama bin Laden. The FAQ board for the film here on IMDb answers that question. Maya, portrayed by Jessica Chastain, was a composite character of several female CIA agents who worked on the bin Laden case, both before and after 9/11. I don't know if knowing that before seeing the picture helps or not.
I thought the picture effectively demonstrated the excruciating detail and frustration of gathering evidence to pin down a shadowy figure like bin Laden. Additional viewings of the picture would probably help in keeping up with the myriad of characters involved on the Muslim side. This is highlighted by the fact that the first Abu Ahmed turned out to be a false lead. A sit up and take notice moment occurred for me when a particular negotiation for information rested on a deal for a Lamborghini.
The most impressive scenes for this viewer involved the storming of the compound in Abbotobad. The harrowing tension one feels while watching the Navy SEALs is juxtaposed by their own relatively calm demeanor in fulfilling their mission. That's probably what was most impressive about the SEAL team performance, composure under duress, even after one of the choppers went down before the mission even started.
I held off watching the film until now because I thought there was more of a political agenda attached to it. One might possibly argue that point with the torture scenes or the seeming incapacity of the upper echelon personnel in the CIA to make a decision, but I perceived the picture almost as if it were a documentary about the planning and execution of a complex mission to take out the world's most notorious terrorist at the time. On that level, I think the film makers did a good job.