Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty
Made in: USA
Language: English, Arabic
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Jeremy Strong, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt
Year: 2012

Synopsis: After the most devastating attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, Usama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind 9/11 and spiritual leader of Al-Qaida, went into hiding. For nearly ten years he evaded all attempts to find him…until a daring nighttime raid by SEAL Team 6 put an end to arguably the greatest manhunt in history.

Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), through painstaking research and an uphill battle against political forces in Washington and creative roadblocks in Hollywood, presents a controversial tell-it-like-it-is story of grueling detective work that spans several years.

The protagonist is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA analyst consumed with the ultimate "needle in a haystack" job of finding Bin Laden. She has a front row seat to witnessing coercive interrogations (or torture, as mainstream the media defines it) on captured terrorists, which take an emotional toll. On top of that, she encounters fierce political opposition, clueless bureaucrats, and even deals with several attempts on her life.

Terrorist confessions and information gathered from a number of covert operations all form pieces of a delicate puzzle, which eventually point their way to a mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Finally, Maya is granted an audience with then CIA director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini), where she tells him that she's "100 % certain" of Bin Laden's whereabouts.

And the rest is history.

The Good: Zero Dark Thirty is an intense docudrama that panders to neither liberal nor conservative sensibilities. With a politically neutral tone, director Kathryn Bigelow presents a story that shows us how the manhunt unfolded, but doesn't us what or how to think. 

Jessica Chastain plays a compelling protagonist. She is tough, driven, vulnerable…but not a superhero. Ironically, that makes the story even more remarkable, in that one of the driving forces behind the downfall of the world's most wanted terrorist could be so ordinary.

The climactic raid conducted by the Navy SEALS is the film's big moment, and it's every bit of the nail-biter that it was promised to be. The replica of the Abbottabad compound seems to have been expertly reproduced, and even though we know how the operation ends, it's still very exciting and brings the film to its emotional conclusion. 

For those who might be wondering, the action in the final scene closely follows the events described in the book No Easy Day, which is a detailed account of the raid written by one of the SEALs who led the operation.

The Bad: With all the controversy surrounding the film, it's very difficult to tell just what is real and what might have been embellished for movie-goers. For instance, it's rumored that the character of Maya might have actually been a man instead of a woman.

And could the actual hunt for Usama Bin Laden really have fit the action movie formula so perfectly? I guess, for now at least, we may never know.

Who would like this film: Zero Dark Thirty is for you if you're rational enough to not lose your sh*t every time you come across a political opinion you don't agree with. If you're looking to have your political viewpoints reaffirmed, regardless of what side of the political aisle you're on, this movie won't do that for you. Bush and Obama both take sharp criticism, and cheerleaders on both the left and right will definitely have a reaction.

Controversial subjects such as coercive interrogations (or torture, as defined by many), secret prisons, and war itself are treated as complex realities that don't have clear moral boundaries.

On the one hand, harsh treatment of terrorists (including waterboarding), the use of secret prisons, and the violation of Pakistani sovereignty played an important role in taking down Bin Laden. This possibly saved American lives, and at the very least, offers some sense of closure for families of 9/11 victims. 

But the unintended consequences of those actions can have dangerous legal ramifications in the United States regarding civil liberties and the unchecked expansion of government power. 

As a film, Zero Dark Thirty is a bold but balanced look at the War on Terror. It makes a compelling case that objective reality is a far more frightening and complicated entity to behold when not seen through the prism of our political biases.

(3 and 1/2 stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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