ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 10: Zero Dark Thirty

Year: 2012

Runtime: 157 Minutes

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Writer: Mark Boal

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Strong, Jason Clarke, Harold Perrineau

By Brian Skutle

We often associate the “male gaze” in cinema with how female sexuality is portrayed, but I would argue that it exists when it comes to modern military movies as well. This is one of the thoughts that found itself moving through my brain rewatching Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” There is a jingoistic, action-driven version of this or “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow’s Oscar-winning drama about bomb diffusers in Iraq, that could be made by a Michael Bay or Peter Berg. It would have been empty thrills compared to the contemplative work Bigelow does in both films.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

In reuniting with “Hurt Locker” writer Mark Boal, Bigelow shoots her shot in how she’s going to approach the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Really, there was no other approach. The decade between the September 11 attacks and the morning of May 1, 2011, when Seal Team Six executed the raid on the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding, does not allow itself for a steady escalation of action set pieces building toward that climactic night. There were lulls in the investigation the CIA was conducting bordering on inaction; the urgency was there in agents like Maya, Jessica Chastain’s character, but the process was slow, and required precision and certainty in order to reach its endgame. The film Bigelow made has more in common with Fincher’s “Zodiac” than Bay’s “13 Hours,” and that works to its favor.

What She Said:

“From the very first scenes of Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates why she is such a formidable filmmaker, as adept with human emotion as with visceral, pulse-quickening action.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Maya is probably the most personal representation of who Bigelow is that we’ve seen. A woman working in a field dominated by men, Bigelow doesn’t show a lot of blatant sexism and misogyny towards the character from her peers — in fact, most of them (even ones whom get their balls regularly busted by her like Mark Strong’s bureau chief) respect her efforts — but she shows how even people who admire her determination in this one mission have her step aside when presenting the big picture. Again, there is an awful version of this movie to be made by men, where the friendship between Maya and Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) would have been reduced to discussing relationships; the higher ups would have been boorish and just awful people who disregard Maya entirely; and there would have been an intolerable romantic subplot at the heart of all this.

Jennifer Ehle in Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

It makes a difference, in a positive way, that Maya has no romantic attachments (that we know of) and the mission is what matters. Though the character is a fictional representation of several along the way, she is the film’s true North, working through the noise and chatter, the dead ends and the sudden breaks, the lack of patience on the part of people outside of her mind and the cold leads she can’t quite shake, to a conclusion that felt, when it was announced, like a chapter of history had closed. Chastain’s performance is almost entirely internal, with little in the way of emotional outbursts, because not only is that who Maya is, but to show big emotions would derail what she’s worked for. It wouldn’t be shocking if Bigelow has felt similarly working in the Hollywood system.

What She Said:

“This doesn’t zip along in the manner of typical Hollywood entertainment but it’s memorable cinema with a finale that will stay with you long after viewing.”

Anna Smith, Metro (UK)
1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty
Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) (IMDB)

The first thing we see is black. The first thing we hear is chatter from the chaos and fear of September 11, 2001. The film begins proper when we first see Maya witnessing an interrogation conducted by Dan (Jason Clarke). One of the controversies surrounding the film when it came out was how, in critics’ eyes, it emphasized the importance of “enhanced interrogation”- the Bush administration’s euphemism for torture- in leading the CIA to bin Laden, and indeed, the person we see Dan interrogating. While it does show the prisoner being tortured in the first part of the film being the key person pointing them to the courier they eventually track to bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t whitewash the torture, which is portrayed horrifyingly, as we watch the film unfold, it’s more the efforts of people Maya work with in trying to build on that lead, and discover the truth of it, that leads them to the answers they seek.

The final sequence in this film, which shows Seal Team Six breaching the bin Laden compound, is one of the most memorable sequences of the past decade. It’s the culmination of Maya’s obsession with capturing bin Laden and the way Bigelow stages the sequence is not bombastic — save for when one of the choppers taking the team on the mission crashes — but quietly riveting.

What She Said:

“Zero Dark Thirty is an emotional thrill ride; a film that shows you what it wants you to see and lets you decide your moral stance.”

Jennifer Heaton, Alternative Lens

Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser keep us embedded with the Team, following the progress of the mission in a logical manner where we understand the strategy. When bin Laden is taken down, it’s not a loud, dramatic moment but simply part of the mission; we never even see his face, but we feel the gravity of the moment, which is only amplified when the Team returns to its face, and Maya makes the ID. Again, it’s not a big moment, but just part of the procedure. She then boards a plane, the only person being taken on it, and the pilot asks her where she’s going. That answer doesn’t matter to anyone but her; and then, the screen goes black, as it started out, before the credits roll.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal in Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

“Zero Dark Thirty,” like the decade-long search it dramatizes, is an endurance test. A lot of people would have crashed on these rocks; it takes someone truly immersed in its purpose, understanding why it matters, to see it through to the end. It asks hard questions of the audience in how the protection of lives is achieved, and how the War on Terror has been prosecuted. Maya’s mission was accomplished, but was it worth the compromise involved with it? As Alexandre Desplat’s ominous, propulsive score plays over the names of the filmmakers responsible for this gripping thriller, we still may not be sure of the answers.

The Extra Bits:

Where to watch:

Netflix: Stream

Amazon: Rent & Buy

iTunes: Rent & Buy


One thought on “ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 10: Zero Dark Thirty

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s