FlixChatter Review: Zero Dark Thirty


Apart from perhaps Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s films are often a one-time-viewing-only for me and this one is no exception. It’s not a dis mind you, it’s just that the subject matter she picks are usually so difficult to watch.

The beginning of the film took us back to September 11, 2001. With nothing appearing on screen, we hear the tape of the air controller and 911 operators responding to the people in the twin towers. It was an efficient way to remind us what’s really at stake in the investigations that take place two years later. A CIA officer named Maya has just been brought to the black site where an ongoing interrogation of an alleged terrorist takes place. It’s during the first 20 minutes of the torture and humiliation scenes, including waterboarding, that’s become the subject of tons of controversies. Kathryn Bigelow has since defended her film, saying that “…depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices.” Well said, I’d say.

This film definitely challenges us to ponder on various moral issues and as a viewer I was put into a roller coaster ride as all kinds of raw emotions run through me. At the center of it all, we have a relentless protagonist Maya, who’s become obsessed with this manhunt. What started out as an assignment straight out being recruited out of high school, her hunt for Bin Laden (nicknamed ‘UBL’ by her colleagues) quickly became a personal vendetta.


It plays like a documentary at times in the way it depicts true events such as the various terrorist bombings, including one that Maya herself almost become a victim of at the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan. Despite its claim that it was based on true events though, of course it’s still a movie so creative liberties are obviously taken. As a thriller, it definitely works. Despite the 157-minute running time, Bigelow’s direction based on Mark Boal’s script managed to keep my attention throughout. There’s not a boring moment as even the slower moments are packed with tension. There’s also some humorous moments such as when Maya relentlessly writes on the glass window of her CIA boss how many days its been since she gave out her intel but nothing has been done about it. She also delivered the most bad-ass lines to Leon Panetta (played by Mr Soprano himself, James Gandolfini) when he asked who she was during a meeting discussing Bin Laden’s compound.

“I’m the motherf***** who found this place, sir!”

I don’t like to cuss but that is one heck of an awesome line delivered in such deadpan perfection by Jessica Chastain. She gave a credible performance in the role. Maya’s reserved, even aloof at times, but she’s definitely a fighter and she stops at nothing to get the job done. There’s a powerful scene where she tells her boss Joseph Bradley a piece of her mind, it was a ‘you go girl’ moment and Chastain nailed it.The supporting cast delivered a solid performance as well, most notably Jason Clarke (an Aussie who always play Americans), Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez and Mark Strong. Joel Edgerton plays one of the SEALS Team Six that appeared in the last 40 minutes of the actual raid in the compound in Abbottabad.

I thought that the whole sequence was well-directed. The views from night-vision goggles and the handheld camera movements offer quick cuts in a dark environment, but thankfully it didn’t make me feel nauseous watching it. I’m also glad that Bigelow didn’t over-dramatize the actual killing of Bin Laden with excessive slo-mo, what have you. Though we know how the end plays out, it’s still an edge-of-your-seat ride from start to finish.


The end of such an exhilarating, dangerous, and not to mention expensive operation ends with a solemn moment of Maya alone on an airplane as she leaves the military base. It’s the right kind of sentiment I’d expect someone in her position would have. She’s spent years at the agency to finally get to this moment, to bring justice a man who has killed thousands of innocent victims. But yet, there’s no self-congratulatory cheer, no high-fives with the troops… it’s not a moment of celebration. It was such a relief for me that the whole ordeal is over and I had only been watching it for 2.5 hours, I can’t begin to imagine how the real ‘Maya’ must have felt.

As I said in my Oscar nominations reaction, I think Bigelow was snubbed and now I’m even more convinced of it. It was a well-crafted film all around, the non-flashy, no non-sense directing style works for this subject matter, and acting-wise it was top notch. The whole film was enhanced by the terrific score Alexander Desplat. It’s minimalistic but definitely effective in setting the mood. A riveting film that certainly leaves much to ponder about for days to come.

4.5 out of 5 reels

What are your thoughts on this film? I’d love to hear it.

44 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Zero Dark Thirty

  1. Well done Ruth. No doubt that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some have said that the torture in the film is glamorized, and they’ve also said that the film misleads because it over-emphasizes the importance of the torture in eliciting information. I’m not sure what film they’re talking about, but in my view it wasn’t this one. I hadn’t read Bigelow’s quote about depiction is not an endorsement – so thanks for that.

    My point is that too many folks will find a reason to support their own preconceived theories rather than simply react to the reality of what the filmmaker puts up on the screen. And that is unfortunate .

    1. Hi Mike! I’d be the last person to condone any form of torture, but yeah, I didn’t think the film glamorizes that. In fact, Dan (Jason Clarke) clearly said to Maya how it takes a toll on him and no doubt it’s a demoralizing experience for everyone involved. I think the film is more of a detective story and character study, but the protesters made it sound like the *entire* film revolves around torture.

  2. Well said Ruth (although I can’t wait to see it again). It’s such a well crafted story that covers everything from the bad leads to the tension filled moments where everything begins to come together. And Bigelow’s direction? Superb!

    1. You can’t wait to see it again? I might rent it but my nerves was stretched to its snapping point, I don’t think I want to go through it anytime soon. I’m glad I saw it on the big screen though, it definitely merits all the kudos it’s received.

      1. Oh certainly want to see it again. Obviously not for any enjoyment in the torture scenes. But there are so many really great performances. And the narrative moves at just the right pace. As mentioned, even the slower parts are fabulous.

        1. I think if I were to see it again, I’ll just start AFTER the torture scenes. The editing and pacing are ace, I hope they’re nominated for Best Editing, I forgot if it was or not.

  3. Great review Ruth. The high scores are flooding in for this. I will get around to it when it opens but I really didn’t like the Hurt Locker so I hope this delivers something different.

  4. Ted S,

    Nice review Ruth, I’ll probably check it out when it hits BD. I don’t take these films based on true events to heart, I’m sure certain things depicted in the film did happen in real life but Hollywood tends to over dramatized everything. David Fincher got criticized for how he told Zuckerberg’s story but he said he’s not a historian, he’s a story teller.

    1. Yep, same argument should be applied here. Ultimately, Bigelow and Boal are filmmakers and story-tellers, and I view the film as that, a piece of art. As a political thriller, it definitely delivered!

  5. Of the number of films running 2.5+ hours out there this award season, ZDT was easily the fastest viewing experience I had last year. And I was well aware of the story having completed reading Mark Bowden’s new non-fiction, THE FINNISH: THE KILLING OF OSAMA BIN LADEN, right before I screened this. Unfortunately, director Bigelow and the film are getting the raw end of the politics surrounding this. It is a great, thoughtful film that gets a number of things right. Although, it’s not a documentary, and shouldn’t be treated as one. So the complaints for a lack of total accuracy are misleading and only helped to frighten off Oscar voters (the idiots). Bigelow and Boal told a riveting story/film and are getting the shaft for it. Fine review, Ruth.

    1. Yeah, my hubby and I said the same thing. It didn’t feel long at all as we’re both so absorbed by what’s going on in the film.

      Yeah, the whole torture debacle is unfair I think. Bigelow’s defense is a good one and indeed, it’s a movie where creative license is used so people should not assume it’s a documentary just because some of the events depicted were true.

      It’s inevitable thought that the subject matter would be subject to scrutiny, and I think the filmmakers knew that going in. Still it doesn’t make it right. It’s a piece of art and it should be judged as such.

    1. Thanks Terry. I don’t think of this as a propaganda, it’s not painting the protagonists or the SEALs as heroes, they’re just doing their job. It doesn’t glamorize the operation the way say, the director of Gangster Squad did about gangsters.

  6. Nice review, Ruth, I completely agree. Very tense, and Bigelow DOES do an awesome job. So does Chastain… I had to include both of them when doing my year end best ofs, for sure, I know that. The movie, too. Esily one of the best movies of the year!

    1. Thanks Fogs. It was so darn tense in the first 20 min that I had my scarf draped over my face the entire time. The performances are just fantastic though, I’ve always been a fan of Chastain and she wowed me yet again. I hope she wins the Oscar, too!

  7. Good flick indeed. Very well crafted without sensationalizing any aspect of it. For me, it’s not the kind of movie that truly gets to me from an emotional standpoint so I wouldn’t say it was unforgettable, but certainly a very good one. Glad you liked it Ruth, good review! 😀

    1. I was surprised that I was more emotionally connected to Jessica’s character than Jeremy Renner’s in THL. Even though she was kind of an emotionally-reserved character, she was not unsympathetic. I think the ending scene really lingered with me more than any other parts of the film… it was a ‘right’ ending I think and yeah, it’s good that it wasn’t sensationalized. Some called the Bin Laden killing was an anti-climax but I think it was the right decision to keep it that way and doing it in real time.

    1. I actually did not love The Hurt Locker. I appreciate parts of it but didn’t think it was Best Picture-worthy. I get more out of this one for sure.

  8. I agree with your summation here, Ruth. And I think that Bigelow deserved the nod even more so here than with The Hurt Locker. (The Academy should’ve waited to nominate her IMO).

    It did bother me that it went back and forth between being a documentary and not. Along with some things that weren’t too well explained, however, I very much enjoyed my viewing of it. I won’t prob buy it as I prob won’t watch it again either but I gave it the same score as you did.

    Great review, Ruth! 🙂

    1. Amen on your first sentence, I definitely think this one is more mind-blowing to me.
      I actually think the ‘switch’ between drama and documentary pretty seamless, I sort of expected the raid at the end would be more like a doc as it was shot in real time. I was just glad I wasn’t nauseous during that sequence, ahah. Yeah, not sure I could go through this one again.

  9. Magnificent review, Ruth! I’ve been hearing a lot about the controversy over how torture was portrayed and allegedly justified in this film. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I don’t really have an opinion. But one of my big fears, as a U.S. citizen, is that people here will forget about how our government violated the Geneva convention, our outrage over reports of waterboarding, and so forth. If this keeps people thinking and talking about that, even if it’s because they’re angry at this film-maker, I think that’s probably a good thing.

    1. Thanks Steph… magnificent? Wow, that means a lot coming from you, I’m humbled.

      I think it’s good that people are outraged by reports of torture being done during the war, as they should. But the film does not glamorize or paint that act as a ‘good’ thing. On the contrary, it shows how ugly war on terrorism is and the cost of that. I just read an article on Bigelow and she said “War, obviously, isn’t pretty … and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.” I definitely don’t think that the filmmakers advocate torture, just like filmmakers who depict the acts of criminals agree with what they do.

      1. As I said, I haven’t seen the movie=no opinion, but what you said makes sense. 🙂 And military action should *never* be portrayed as free of moral consequences, in my opinion.

  10. Glad to see you liked this one, Ruth. Especially after your response to The Hurt Locker. 😉

    Same rating for me, and I agree that Bigelow was snubbed. Of course, I think Tarantino was too. There were a lot of worthy directors in 2012.

  11. Impressive review Ruth!
    I have never heard of this movie before. Torture has never been my problem in viewing if it has meaning (unlike most slasher movies…and that’s why I don’t like slasher that much).
    You really make me want to see it

    1. This is definitely not the same torture scenes like in those slasher movies, Nov, it wasn’t glamorized or paint them as ‘entertainment.’ Is it playing in Indo? I’m curious how this film is received in the Muslim-dominant regions.

      1. I don’t think it will be played. But the DVD will sure be here…the pirate DVD that is.

        I am also curious with that one. Is it being one sided or not

    1. That’s true. That’s because it was filmed in real time. I think that was an effective approach, and it wasn’t made out to be overly sensational with slo-mo and stuff.

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  13. Great movie, but some horrible miscasting in the choice of Chris Pratt as a member of Seal Team 6. Every time he came on screen, all I could think about is “That dufus Andy from Parks and Rec is supposed to be a member of Seal Team 6?” Not in this universe.

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  15. Well said, Ruth. There’s no “glamor” in this film anywhere, so anyone claiming it makes light of, or condones, or tries to say anything political about the extraction of information from terrorists is mistaken. ZD30 is a terrific film indeed, although I will also agree with your early statement in that Bigelow makes films that aren’t major repeat viewing material. Having seen this, I’ll probably never have the desire to watch it again, and I fell the same about Hurt Locker, but man, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a chance to take in Strange Days…. THAT’S a film!!!

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