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Zero Dark Thirty: Movie Review

Zero Dark Thirty stars Jessica Chastain as ‘Maya’. Supporting performances from Jason Clark as ‘Dan’, the CIA’s go-to torturer, and Jennifer Ehle as ‘Jessica’, a CIA operative with a competing theory on how to beat al-Qaeda. Featuring hundreds of interchangeable suits as Maya’s CIA bosses, an army of ‘army-guys’, and a seemingly endless number of terrorist suspects in crates. Cameo appearance by Osama bin Laden’s body double. The film was directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by Mark Boal.

And in case you’re wondering what Zero Dark Thirty means, it’s a military term for 30 minutes after midnight.

Warning: this review contains spoilers

Zero Dark Thirty starring Jessica Chastain

Zero Dark Thirty: Logline

After 9/11, a CIA analyst spends years tracking Osama bin Laden down and must negotiate terrorist bombs, moral dilemmas and sceptical superiors to find the terrorist leader’s hiding place and persuade the government to attack it.

Zero Dark Thirty: Plot Summary

OK, so I’m guessing you already know what this one is about and how it ends, but what the hell, in case you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan for the last few years – they kill bin Laden at the end.

It’s 2003, Maya arrives in Afghanistan where Dan is torturing a prisoner into giving up the names of al-Qaeda operatives. It isn’t working, but Maya realises isolation and severe sleep deprivation mean that the prisoner might be tricked into thinking he has cooperated and give up further information. This works and the hunt is on for a man called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who is bin Laden’s courier and might lead to the man himself. Much ‘enhanced interrogation’ later, bombs are still going off (7/7 London attack, Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing). And then a prisoner claims Abu Ahmed died in 2001. No one is glad to hear this news, particularly as it comes hot on the heels of Jessica falling for an al-Qaeda sting and getting blown up (this scene is based on the 2009 death of CIA agent Jennifer Matthews, and six colleagues in a suicide bombing at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan).

So, Maya and her pals are stuck, all the torture has got them nowhere, they’ve spent five years barking up the wrong tree, some of them are getting a little jaded. A CIA suit flies in to put a rocket up their butts. They’ve spent millions, taken casualties, and got nowhere. The terrorists are winning. He wants blood, preferably bin Laden’s.

Maya has a brainwave – Abu Ahmed might not be dead! Maybe his brother died and he’s still alive! After all, these guys all have beards, how can anyone tell them apart?

Dan bribes a Kuwaiti prince of some description with a Lamborghini (the accuracy of this scene has been denied by former CIA director, Jose Rodriguez) and they get lucky – Abu Ahmed is a good boy and when not helping run the world’s premier terrorist organisation he keeps in touch with his dear old mum. Bingo! He’s in Peshawar, Pakistan (cue shot of red marker pen circling Peshawar  on a map). The spies get overtime looking for him, but he’s a sneaky bugger always driving round in his highly conspicuous white 4×4. Slowly the CIA track him through the souks and the picturesque countryside until they find a curious looking compound…

But they can’t tell who’s in there. The suits are nervous. The high-ups’ jowls wobble. They want to do the right thing, but is it bin Laden or just some paranoid drug dealer? It’s all a bit politically sensitive, invading Pakistan. The WMD fiasco was a major-league fuck-up they can’t afford another disaster. Maybe best they let it go? Even Dan pops back in to say it’s only a 50:50. Maya gives them all a lot of grief.

And 50:50 or not it’s a go.

Now our spy thriller becomes a war film. We get an intertitle announcing ‘Area 51’. Woah, they’re going to use a UFO to get the big guy. Oh… no, it’s just a couple of helicopters, but they are at least stealth helicopters. The raid itself goes down pretty much as you’d imagine it from the news reports, except a lot slower and with no obvious deployment of anything resembling realistic military tactics.

And, as I said, bin Laden gets it, right between the eyes.

But it’s all been tough on poor old Maya and the film closes with her looking wistful. Without bin Laden she has nothing. She has given everything… everything!

The final attack from Zero Dark Thirty

The Torture Thing

Right let’s get this one out of the way first. Does Zero Dark Thirty glorify torture? I’m going with… it’s complicated.

The torture scenes that take up the first 20 minutes of the film are brutal, unflinching and don’t leave much to the imagination. It’s difficult to see how they make torture look like anything other than what it is, degrading and a disgrace to civilisation. Maya herself is seen finding the process distasteful.

So that’s 1-0 to the anti-torture team.

However, she comes round pretty quickly and is soon in there torturing with the big boys. Although, being a woman, she has thugs to head-butt her captives for her, unlike Dan who at least gets his hands dirty. She’s the heroine, so this is a definite goal for the pro-torture team.


But the torture doesn’t work. Maya has to trick the prisoner into giving up bin Laden’s courier. The al-Qaeda operatives try to avoid being tortured by making shit up (technical term). The leads from torture go nowhere. The breaks in the case come first from Maya spotting overlooked intelligence supplied by the Jordanians, second bribery and third signals intelligence.


Maya, Dan and the rest of the CIA seem to be upset that they can’t torture people any more after President Obama gets in. Dan seems at a loss about how he’s ever going to get any usable intelligence  ever again. How the police ever get anyone to confess must be a mystery to him.


It’s a draw.

Zero Dark Thirty provides no endorsement of the (long discredited) idea that the CIA was not engaged in torture. It does supply some support to the theory that torture is unpleasant but it works, but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

The practical critique of torture, that it doesn’t work because it just ends up with the victims saying anything to make it stop, and then resources are wasted following up all the spurious leads, is touched on. That argument could be explored more in a film, but not one that wants to tell this story. The film is two and a half hours long already. It is still compressed and in places confusing, with a lot of intertitles trying to explain where the hell we are now.

From my writer’s perspective though, the film could simply have started later, after the torture, and been half an hour shorter. A short opening scene where someone just gives Maya the courier’s name and we could segue straight to what is in the actual film the second act. Clearly, the writer intended to explore the issue. I’d say he was in two minds about what point he wanted to make. It would have been very easy to lead the viewer by simply placing an unattractive ‘evil’ character on one side of the divide or the other. As the screenplay doesn’t do that, the way you view torture is unlikely to change after you see the film. If it’s propaganda, it’s extremely subtle.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Analysis: Drama versus Realism

Mark Boal also wrote The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty is very similar in its semi-documentary style. This has advantages and disadvantages. Being ‘a true story’ means the viewer will allow the writer to get away with things that they wouldn’t in a fictional film (the incessant expository intertitles for example).

The film is long, discursive and there are lots and lots of characters. Unfortunately, apart from Maya and Dan (and Dan practically disappears in the second half) few of them have much chance to make an impression on the viewer. This is the peril of semi-documentary: in reality single individuals are not present as the whole story unfolds. Even compressing and using composite characters, the true story of the hunt for bin Laden simply requires more personnel than the viewer can keep track of. As it is, Maya and Dan seem to be in an unfeasibly large number of places at the right time.

The climax of the film is really the go-no-go decision. The actual raid is not particularly well done. The tension evaporates, because we know what’s going to happen and it happens too slowly. I might even have been tempted to stay with Maya’s point of view during the raid (she’s back in Afghanistan waiting to identify the body). The final lurch from espionage thriller to war film is stylistically difficult, and not helped by the fact that the helicopters have more personality than the soldiers, who simply don’t get enough screen time to establish themselves as individuals.

There are various minor quibbles with the realism of the film, the search and the raid are both known to have been substantially more complicated than shown on film, but this is very much the official story, neither the CIA nor the US military will have compromised any secrets in facilitating its making. But if you want to know in precise detail what happened then you’d be better reading a book. In the end, the viewer should remember that despite the documentary feel, this is not actually a true story, just a loose interpretation based on biased sources.

Zero Dark Thirty: Alternative Movie Poster

This is my design for an alternate, more minimalist Zero Dark Thirty poster. The tagline is based on something Dan says to one of his prisoners: “This is what defeat looks like, bro. Your jihad is over.” Click the image to see more of my alternative spy thriller posters.

Alternative Movie Poster for Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty: My Verdict

Mixed. There are some great scenes. The tracking of the courier through the Islamabad souk for example is excellent drama. The tension is ratcheted as high as possible considering we know what’s going to happen. Jessica Chastain gives a fine performance. But the supposed climax of the film, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, is actually a bit of a dramatic fizzle. And well, you know, there’s the torture thing…

Want to watch it?

The trailer is here:

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