Zero Dark Thirty Review

poster from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

I love war movies, Navy SEALs, Joel Edgerton, spies, and The Hurt Locker, so obviously I had to see Zero Dark Thirty, even if it the trailers made it look like a mystery thriller in which everyone knows the end (spoiler alert: Osama Bin Laden dies). But since I haven’t read No Easy Day or Code Word Geronimo yet, everything except for the end would be a mystery to me. Here are the bare bones:

A young CIA officer devotes her life to tracking down terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden by gathering information on his personal courier.

I suspected (and have now confirmed) that there are a lot of people who will not like Zero Dark Thirty. They’ll think it skips around too much or that it’s too confusing or that there’s not enough action. But I’m not one of those people. I loved Zero Dark Thirty. It was smart, tense, and edgy, and I’d watch it again.


I saw Zero Dark Thirty on a Friday night. I was in line behind a group of 14 to 17 year old boys in hockey jackets braying and pushing each other around, and I thought to myself: ‘unless these boys are a lot more intellectual than they seem, they’re going to hate this movie.’ And I was right. Sure there are stealth helicopters and terrorist explosions and Navy SEALs in this movie, but it’s not an action movie.

SEALS use night vison on the raid from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

Sorry, 14 to 17 year old boys, please go back to playing Call of Duty now.

Zero Dark Thirty is closer to what a real manhunt would be like – a lot of office work followed by a bunch of tense sneaking around and a twenty minute final battle – so mostly drama, with a bit of thriller and war movie thrown in. Even the war movie scenes aren’t the loud, screaming messes that we’re used to. They’re stealthy, quiet, competent, with the characters adapting to setbacks without freaking out. More like real operators than Hollywood commando stereotypes.

stealth helicopter pilots from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

What? We’re crashing? Ok, no worries. I’m sure there’s a mattress factory below us.

The movie is presented in an almost documentary-like style. Each segment is labeled and dated and the plot covers a ten year period while CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) works on different leads, some of which pan out, some of which dead end. This sounds like it should be boring – CIA agents going through files, watching interviews on videotape and staring at their computer screens.

Jessica Chastain from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

It’s like looking in a mirror. I wonder if switches also to old episodes
of Big Bang Theory when she needs a break?

But it’s not boring. For one thing, there’s torture, and for another thing, I was constantly wondering – where’s the next piece of the puzzle going to come from? Plus they would often interrupt the manhunt with setbacks in the form of unbearably tense lead-ups to terrorist attacks.

a car bomb explodes from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this car bombing.

There’s little to no character development, because Maya has pretty much devoted her life to bringing down Bin Laden, and the rest of the characters, including her boss Joseph (Kyle Chandler), her mentor Daniel (Jason Clarke) and her friends Jessica and Jack (Jennifer Ehle and Harold Perrineau) are only there to help or hinder her in her quest.

Kyle Chandler and Jessica Chastain from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

JOSEPH: No, you may not have sharks with lasers on their heads!
MAYA: Aw, come on. Everyone loves sharks with lasers on their heads.

The fact that the main character is a woman is both important and not important. It’s not important to the story because when people don’t listen to Maya, it’s because of politics or lack of evidence her inexperience. NOT because she’s a woman. She doesn’t have to deal with any sexist bullsh** at all, even from the SEALs, who are notorious for not letting women even try out for their program.

Chriss Pratt and Joel Edgerton from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

CHRIS: So what do you think of the spy lady?
JOEL: SHE’S A LADY??

And that’s what’s important: the fact that there can be a female main character in a war movie without all the other characters making a big deal about it.

Jessica Chastain from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

Yeah, I got lady parts. Deal with it.

As for the Navy SEALs who get most of the credit for the takedown, though Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt have third and fourth billing in a lot of the ads, they don’t even come into the movie until almost the end, so if you’re expecting a lot of action from that quarter, don’t. This movie isn’t about the SEALs taking down Bin Laden. In fact, they weren’t supposed to be in it at all. The movie was originally about the unsuccessful manhunt for Bin Laden and had to be rewritten when he was found.

Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke from the Annapurna Pictures film Zero Dark Thirty

So I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news: Bin Laden is dead.
The bad news? You gotta rewrite your whole movie.

That’s not to say that it’s completely factual. I know a lot of US government departments are scrambling to distance themselves from Zero Dark Thirty because of the torture stuff, but since it’ll probably be like fifty years before the real reports are declassified, the best thing to do is just set aside the issue of fact vs. fiction and enjoy the movie. And you will enjoy the movie if you don’t have to be constantly overstimulated by explosions and gunfights. It’s stark, suspenseful, and riveting. Give it a try.

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