Film review – Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty: Maya (Jessica Chastain)

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have taken the true story behind the manhunt for Osama bin Laden to craft an excellent police procedural. Zero Dark Thirty follows the frequently frustrated effects of a CIA officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who has to contend with false leads, dead-ends, personal attacks, the death of colleagues and a fundamental ideological shift in the Whitehouse, to create a basic narrative drive that provides a more satisfying experience than Bigelow and Boal’s previous film, the episodic The Hurt Locker (2008). When Zero Dark Thirty delivers its thrilling climax to depict the fateful operation that resulted in bin Laden’s death, Bigelow delivers an astonishing sequence of suspense/action cinema. With cinematographer Greig Fraser, Bigelow provides the audience with an almost first person perspective of the US Navy SEALs as they go about their deadly mission. The screen appears to be in complete darkness, yet just enough light is filtered into the camera so that viewers can make-out what is going on during the methodical high-stakes mission. It is exhilarating cinema that makes you want to forget all the questionable issues of representation that have come before it.

As an allegedly authentic account of events that is supposedly free from political motivation, Zero Dark Thirty sets itself up as being immune from criticism. However, no film exists in a political or cultural vacuum and by adopting the faux-cinema vérité style that is currently associated with cinematic realism, Bigelow’s film should be especially held up for scrutiny for the way it portrays recent sensitive subject matter that influences public debate over important issues. Depiction may not equate to endorsement, but particular types of representation do. And the big question with Zero Dark Thirty is how does it represent the alleged benefits of torture?

For a start Zero Dark Thirty does not soften or conceal the barbarity of torture. Nor does it deny that it was used by the US under the double-speak terminology of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and as Alex Gibney demonstrated in his 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, never officially sanctioned but ambiguously endorsed to prevent anybody too important ever being held accountable. In this regard, Zero Dark Thirty is commendable for presenting torture as inhumane, soul-destroying for the perpetrators and fatal in terms of losing significant moral ground for the US. The acts Bigelow depicts reflect what is described in Taxi to the Dark Side and dramatised in Michael Winterbottom’s powerful 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. The big question is if like those films does Zero Dark Thirty adhere to the current understanding and evidence that torture is ineffective or does it perpetuate the idea that torture is a necessary evil required to yield results?

It is a murky issue and there are many aspects to suggest the film is not endorsing torture as useful. The change of government during the period that ended the detainee project is shown to annoy many of the CIA agents. However, there is also a scene where a government official speaks about the importance of good intelligence and that the previous false intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq proved how disastrous it is to rely on information taken from detainees under duress. During the first half of the film where the investigation is centred on the intelligence-gathering from tortured detainees, the investigation gets nowhere and there are terrible setbacks. Later when the detainee program has ended and the manhunt has to rely on investigative work, good results occur. Towards the end of the process Maya is told that her desire to find bin Laden has become more a personal fixation wrapped up in revenge rather than a homeland security priority, putting the eventual outcomes into jingoist-free context.

The main question revolves around a key piece of information about one of bin Laden’s couriers. This information is shown in the film to be pivotal to finding bin Laden and it is discovered during the scenes in the film where the CIA is using torture. The waters are muddied by the fact that the information is represented as being given by detainees when they are being treated compassionately, suggesting that the film is showing the inadequacies of torture after all. However, the compassion is portrayed as only being effective for having been applied after the torture has occurred. One man speaks of having experienced torture already so rather than go through that again, willingly gives up the information when asked. Before Maya and her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) get the information from another man, they speak about how to best exploit his loss of short-term memory and general disorientation due to the sleep-deprivation and long-term isolation that they have subjected him to.

While Zero Dark Thirty represents the acts of torture as inhumane and probably unnecessary since most of the positive results occur without the detainee program, it nevertheless ultimately endorses them by linking the information of the courier gained under torture as crucial to discovering where bin Laden was hiding. While the film should be commended for depicting the harsh reality that the ‘good guys’ stooped to the level of the ‘bad guys’ it is worrying that it seems to ultimately suggest the means justified the ends. Furthermore, it makes the audience complicit in the acts, encouraging us to condemn them in our minds while relishing them in our heart. The film opens with a torture scene right after an emotive sound montage of people making desperate emergency calls from within the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. A shot of an exploding bus in the London attacks on 7 July 2005 cuts to Dan playfully feeding an ice cream to his pet monkeys. The edit both humanises his actions as a torturer and gives them a sense of importance and urgency. If torture had been proven to yield results in locating bin Laden, or if it can be proven to be effective at all, then Zero Dark Thirty could be excused for representing the cold hard truth. But this is currently not the case.

As an important sidenote, it is also worth evaluating how Bigelow presents Maya, who is played brilliantly by Chastain. Similar to Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1989), Zero Dark Thirty has as a protagonist an authoritative woman in a mostly male environment. For the most part, Bigelow avoids references to Maya’s gender with a significant exception at the end when in the same sentence she is referred to as ‘the agency expert’ and ‘the girl’; very effectively suggesting that no matter how much professional recognition she will achieve, there are some who will define her for being other than a man. A great earlier scene undermines all regressive expectations regarding female characters when the question of Maya having an affair with Dan is raised and she immediately dismisses the idea as ludicrous since they are professionals working together. It is odd that Bigelow then chooses Maya to be initially antagonistic with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), the only other female character on her team, but otherwise Maya is a given much of the narrative privileges that male characters usually receive in terms of remaining a sympathetic and strong character despite the growing character flaws as she increasingly loses her humanity and perspective.

Where Zero Dark Thirty ultimately leaves the discerning, political-aware cinema viewer is something of a quandary. One easy way out is to simply condemn the whole film for making entertainment out of recent events that lead to the death of a person, albeit somebody whom very few people will shed any tears for. But that would mean condemning nearly every war film or any film that depicts tragic historical events. Zero Dark Thirty is impressive filmmaking that is gripping from start to finish. On purely filmic terms it deserves celebrating. But how this filmmaking presents issues concerned with events and issues that still influence foreign policy all over the world needs to be debated rigorously. And perhaps only then and after an extended period of time will we be able to decide if Zero Dark Thirty is closer in spirit to The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) or Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, Leni Riefenstahl, 1935).

Thomas Caldwell, 2013


  1. You are very smart. Great review; the clearest & most nuanced ive read on Zero. What is diff btween depiction & representation?


  2. Cheers! In general there is little difference between ‘depiction’ and ‘representation’. However, in the context of this film and how it has been discussed elsewhere, I am using ‘depict’ to mean showing something for what it is and I’m using ‘represent’ to mean showing something in a particular way to elicit an emotional response and therefore attach specific meaning to what is being shown.

  3. Thomas your reviewing is nothing short of amazing. For me as an emerging film maker, its really quite humbling, even a little intimidating! So much info has been considered for this piece or at least I think there has. And to get it all so concise, Brilliant. All through, information about the story, thematic idea, when creative techniques become relevant, and character motivations are evidenced with specific details. Details that only some seriously astute and across film end to end can identify, understand or interpret and pass on. I particularly admire the observation of the social implications for the film getting made by you too. I hold this in high regard because where an issue of true story is present, there are people and more than the films marketing strategy to consider. Access to accurate information about the term based on truth and similar should be as visible as the use of the term is itself. It is important and responsible to ask these questions because information in the wrong hands can be dangerous and or a risk for more than those involved. If only a great number of Journos that make up that huge fact checker machine at fairfax had these virtues Thomas! It would then just be a matter of finding the ones who can write! BOOM! Thanks for writing this piece and to a lesser extent compelling me to wanna up my IQ somehow. Cheers. Josh

  4. Really nice review. You’ve hit the nail on the head when you point out that the 9/11 audiotapes are immediately juxtaposed with torture scenes. The outrage and horror the audience feels listening to voices crying out from the Twin Towers immediately numbs us to the one-on-one horror that follows. FYI I found your review thanks to a Andrew Nette retweet. I just posted my own review of Zero Dark Thirty here.

  5. Interesting take but I have to disagree with some of your conclusions. I don’t think the film in any way endorses torture (or even claims it as effective). If we are to get detail orientated we could easily argue that the singular piece of information gleaned from torture in the film is clearly shown to be aquired from other suspects also. It is arguable that the one name the whole investigation bounces out from could easily have come from a multiplicity of sources relegating the torture to trivially effective at best.

    I also feel that discussing details such as whether the information led directly to Bin Laden is a bit of a red herring. I found the entire film to be a deflating experience. I got the distinct impression Bigelow was really illustrating the futility of the hunt for Bin Laden. The final moments of the film pretty much lock that interpretation down so whether or not the torture directly led to useful intelligence is irrelevant as the entire operation was presented as vacuous obsession. There is nothing triumphant about this film.

    When you say,
    “it is worrying that it seems to ultimately suggest the means justified the ends. Furthermore, it makes the audience complicit in the acts, encouraging us to condemn them in our minds while relishing them in our heart”,

    I think you are half right. The audience is most definitely complicit in some of these immoral acts but I do not at all see how we “relish” them in our hearts. In Zero Dark Thirty the means definitely lead to the ends but I don’t think they “justify” the ends.

    For over 150 minutes the film constantly subverts any traditional pleasure a viewer would usually recieve from a narrative such as this. Bigelow withholds, deflates, and generally creates an interminable series of anti-climaxes culminating in the grandest anti-climax of all.

    The film left me empty and hollow – asking what was the point of this whole operation? Even if torture led to killing Bin Laden the film is clearly asking what were we doing it for in the first place.

    Heh, I probably should’ve packaged this into my own blog post but I’m finding Zero Dark Thirty is bringing up some really fascinating interpretations. It’s bordering on a tabula rasa of a text.

  6. @lookoutsmithers: Thank you Josh – very kind of you to say all that. It’s a complex film and I’m still not 100% about my position on it, but I hope I expressed where I’m at right now as best as I could.

    @Cary Watson: Cheers Cary and after reading your review it seems we had a similar response to the film. I appreciated the extra detail you went into on many key points.

    @Richard Haridy: That’s a brilliant response Richard and I’m really pleased you decided to share it here. You’ve given me a lot to ponder and I’d be keen to see the film again with your arguments in the back of my mind. The funny thing is that your take on the film is the one I really wanted to have, but too many things stopped me from doing so, most of which I hope I articulated. Like you, I’ve been fascinated by the range of interpretations and if nothing else it has stirred up some great discussion about cinematic representation.

    There’s so much written about this film already, but two recent pieces that have stood out for me are the following:

    Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power by Slavoj Žižek

    In Defense of Zero Dark Thirty by Michael Moore

  7. Dear Thomas,

    It’s an endless joy to follow your blog however here it is seems that the vital last scene of the movie where every line suppose to come to a meaningful convergence has been ignored; Bin Laden who by the way appears more as a family man than an important merciless killer, has been shot but the film does not celebrate the moment, all we see is an empty plane and a certainly not cheerful Maya who doesn’t know what to say when she was asked to say where do we go now? A question that somehow implies to all of us as audience.

    We wrap the brutality of modern human life in a pleasant ignorance. We even successfully win to wane off the words in papers to avoid picturing in our minds what they might really mean, to live peacefully inside and praise the hope. And now Biglow’s disturbing scenes of torture and the so called following triumph, just left me in the same plane sitting and thinking that where do we go?

Comments are closed.