Film Review: ZERO DARK THIRTY (directed by Kathryn Bigelow)

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by Kevin Bowen on December 23, 2012

in Film


The better part of the last decade saw Iraq War movie after Iraq War movie bite the dust. Something was off. Those war films continued to miss their mark until The Hurt Locker,  the first Middle Eastern war film from screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow. What was the difference? The Hurt Locker was the first Iraq War movie that wasn’t a Vietnam War movie in disguise.

By that, I mean that the earlier films, having no access to the battlefield, basically worked off Vietnam War storytelling templates stuck in the freezer since the eighties. Most commonly thawed in the oven was the “Army of Victims” template: Soldiers who came from impoverished conditions were tricked into joining the military, and all they want is to get back home IN ONE PIECE. Stop-Loss even went so far as to embellish a north-to-Canada underground railroad for soldiers preferring igloos to forced re-enlistment. Based on the high re-enlistment rates and professional demeanor of actual soldiers, it was ultimately difficult to reconcile with this genre of moviemaking.

Kevin Bowen’s Stage and Cinema film review of “Zero Dark Thirty"

The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty – Boal and Bigelow’s intelligence procedural about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden – are the first films about those conflicts that are actually about those conflicts. The two films are likely to establish the stereotypes to be copied in the coming years. They follow gifted obsessives whose talents and personalities are suited to their warrior profession, whose identity is tied up in the war, and who have nowhere to go after victory.

Kevin Bowen’s Stage and Cinema film review of “Zero Dark Thirty"

This is one reason that film critics, with typically liberal sensibilities, tend to trip over the great ending of The Hurt Locker – when Jeremy Renner’s bomb defusion expert, bored with civilian life, voluntarily returns to Iraq for a new tour of duty. He must be crazy! But in fact, he’s merely going to the only place where his talents make him heroic.

Kevin Bowen’s Stage and Cinema film review of “Zero Dark Thirty"

You can’t help but feel that the same “lost in the supermarket” fate awaits Maya, a fledgling CIA analyst, at the end of Zero Dark Thirty. Once you’ve hunted down Osama Bin Laden, what is there left to do? Played with a brilliantly cold edge by Jessica Chastain, she lives solely for her job: Piecing together bits of information to find the Al Qaeda leader. Assigned to the American embassy in Pakistan, the story takes us through the stages of her investigation over nearly a decade. Her quest starts with the rough investigation of an Al Qaeda courier at a CIA black site (one source of the “torture controversy” that has been swirling around the film) and ends in the May 2011 raid on the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan (with a long, clinical, and gripping re-staging of the raid over the film’s final 40 minutes).

Kevin Bowen’s Stage and Cinema film review of “Zero Dark Thirty"

In the same way that she re-wired the film impression of men on the battlefield in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow seems intent on playing against expectation for the woman’s role. Maya’s reactions to rough interrogations, while at first hesitant, become blankly accepting. As time goes on, she becomes more isolated and more hard-edged, even vowing revenge on terrorists who kill a friend.  That said, the originality of hard-edged movie women is being overstated. Critics somehow manage to call such performances “groundbreaking” at least a few times every year. In today’s film world, the new movie heroine would be one who sits at a desk all day taking dictation.

Kevin Bowen’s Stage and Cinema film review of “Zero Dark Thirty"

I wish I could say that Zero Dark Thirty is as good as The Hurt Locker. But the earlier film has the advantage of ticking bombs and a strong character study. By contrast, a sizable portion of ZD30 consists of people writing down the plot in notebooks.  On top of this, the style is so plain as to be limiting. The crisp, plain visual language might support its journalistic mission. But it isolates Zero Dark Thirty from the way that a great procedural – like David Fincher’s Zodiac – can use cinema to elevate beyond its just-the-facts limitations.

Kevin Bowen’s Stage and Cinema film review of “Zero Dark Thirty"

All that said, it would be hard to make a movie about the Bin Laden search that wasn’t at least interesting, and many passages in Zero Dark Thirty are riveting.  The story is greased with such natural fascination that the film gains momentum as the pieces start to come together in the second half. Providing a satisfying and standard-setting rendition of events of such scale and importance, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a film to get lost in the shuffle.

Kevin Bowen’s Stage and Cinema film review of “Zero Dark Thirty"

photos © Columbia Pictures

Zero Dark Thirty
Columbia Pictures and Annapurna Pictures
rated R
in limited release December 19, 2012
opens nationwide on January 19, 2013

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

JM January 3, 2013 at 7:33 am

This one totally escaped me. Unlike Bigelow’s riveting The Hurt Locker, this one is a total snooze-fest. Slow, plodding, anti-climatic and uneventful. Chastain turns in aother fine performance but far from Oscar worthy. With so many other fine year-end Oscar contenders it’s hard to believe this film is getting so many accolades and nominations and winning as many critic’s awards as it is.


william January 6, 2013 at 1:43 pm

I’ve watched The Hurt Locker several times. It was quite a movie. After seeing ZDT I find it remarkable in the sense that those responsible for the prior also made the latter. If you enjoy movies whose plot is akin to the intricacies of the many ways in which tires can be inflated or the fascinating manner molasses can be poured from a variety of containers or focusing on the forceful response observing parking lot stripes being painted can evoke, then you will not leave the theater confused as to why you were so willing to sacrifice yourself at this low alter of boredom and regret you have relinquished the prior 2 hours and 37 mins of life. Enjoy!


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