Sunday, January 13, 2013

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2013)

They say if you want to keep a happy workplace, never discuss politics or religion. This is something that I completely agree with, and since I consider this blog my "workplace" as a writer, I avoid political debates and other real-world issues because I don't want to see it turn into yet another place for folks to get lathered up over gun control or the war on terror etc..

So I'm going to try and review this film purely as a film, and not as the political fire magnet it has become. Some people might think that's me wimping out, but it's really just me not wanting to get into one of "those" arguments. For better or for worse, here we go...

I saw the movie at a Friday afternoon matinee. I have always been an advocate for the "theater experience" and with this movie I think that holds extremely true. There is something about the way a good theater experience immerses you in the film that watching at home simply lacks. There are too many distractions, and you lose focus too easily. A good theater experience is like a sensory deprivation chamber, taking away everything but the sounds and images of the film. For Zero Dark Thirty, I think that experience is vital. If you have any interest in seeing this film, do so in the theater.

The movie starts off with a blank screen and the sounds of a bunch of 9/11 phone calls, and more than any moment in the "torture" segments of the film, this was hard to sit through. Over eleven years have passed, but hearing some young woman ask a 911 operator "I'm going to die, aren't I?" and then have the phone go dead a few seconds later is incredibly rough. I think this was a very sneaky but clever decision on the part of the film makers, to remind everyone what was going through the heads of the CIA agents and operators during the events of the film. Make no mistake, this is a revenge thriller, at its heart little different than Death Wish, and should be viewed through a similar lens despite its historical context.

Next comes the infamous torture sequences. Are they graphic? I suppose, but although this might classify me as a Grade-A Bastard, I was expecting something a lot more brutal. I find it interesting that we as a culture can crank out an endless series of slasher movies and SAW films, movies that essentially use the torture and death of innocents as 90-minute long adrenaline pumps for the audiences, but that a 30-second waterboarding, a bunch of verbal abuse, and sticking some guy in a little wooden box is the filmmaking equivalent of dropping an atomic bomb on a puppy farm. 24 seemed to have more torture in it during any given episode than this whole movie, And while 24 aired everyone said they found it horrible and isn't it complex to play on our emotions that way, we're still to this day fist-pumping at the thought of Jack Bauer popping some Tangos in the brainpan with his H&K USP Compact, calling him the ultimate anti-terror badass, and so forth. And if your response is "Well, 24  was an awful show that glorified torture and I hated it", bully for you, but it went on for eight seasons. Clearly, this is a staggeringly complex issue, and there is no right answer. All I will say is that the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty could have been much more brutal and intense, and I think they were handled to my satisfaction, whatever their ultimate message might have been.

Now, for the rest of the film. Overall, I thought this was a very well-crafted movie. Kathryn Bigelow is an excellent director, pretty much unique in her status as a female film-maker who operates almost exclusively in the "men's genres". I've admired her work since back in the 80's with the gritty vampire thriller Near Dark, and I think she's only gotten better with each succeeding film. ZDT uses a very "documentarian" shooting style, with minmal camera movement and a very voyeuristic feel to the cinematography that makes it easy to fall into the emotional belief that you're actually watching the reality of the events unfolding, rather than a dramatization. There's very little music in the film, and what little there is comes up only in moments of transition or unspoken tension. Coupled with a very powerful sound design, I think this only serves to draw you even further into the film, and again, it's one of the reasons this film should be seen in the theater. There are a couple of moments where things blow up, and the physical vibrations of the sound hitting me were shocking enough for me to jump in my seat. The gunfire, especially in one early sequence, was extremely well-done, relying on the blast and overpressure of the gun's report rather than the "bang", something hard to explain unless you compare, say, gunfire sounds from the 70's or 80's to the gunfire in this film. Again, it works towards making the viewing experience feel less like a movie and more like a documentary. You're not going to get that at home, but I think the intent was to drive home that intensity to the viewer in a very visceral way, and I think it succeeded.

Another area where I think the film-makers were very smart was in casting. There are no major stars in this film, and the two actors I immediately recognized - James Gandolfini from The Sopranos and John Barrowman from Doctor Who  and Torchwood - have very small parts. This film is not a personality vehicle for some A-list celeb to grab an Oscar for Best Actor/Actress, but I still felt all the parts were handled very well, even when we don't really like the characters. For me, I found Maya, the film's main character, to be overly abrasive and kind of irritating (although not as annoying as Claire Danes' character on Homeland, since that'd be virtually impossible), but I think her off-putting demeanor was intentional. As it is mentioned near the end of the film, Maya has spent her entire CIA career doing nothing but hunting down Bin Laden, so it is natural that she's got a fanatic's aggressiveness, while everyone else is warning her about burnout and irreparable damage to her career.

Finally, the raid itself was very intense. I can only imagine the trainwreck it would have been if this film was handled by a bozo such as Michael Bay, with slo-mo scream moments filled with autofire and 'splosions everywhere, I can picture Osama being killed at the climax of the film only after the SEALs took on and defeated several "mini-bosses", the terrorist leader dying as his body is riddled with bullets while silhouetted by flames, as one of the operators sneers "You lose, Osama...". There is none of that, and yet I found it a very tense, disturbing sequence, almost too real to be comfortable, but I think the discomfort I felt was a good thing. Reading accounts of the raid, it surely had some violent moments, but it wasn't some Chuck Norris-esque bullet-fest, and I'm infinitely relieved the film-makers didn't treat it as such.

To conclude, I think Zero Dark Thirty is well worth a look, but I think, sadly, this movie's merits as a spy/military thriller will be completely overshadowed by the controversy surrounding one small part of the film, no matter how important that part might be. It will be interesting to look back on this film in ten years' time and see if the film can escape from this controversy, or be buried by it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thought the movie was excellent and your review hit on many of the reasons why. For my money, it's the best of the Oscar contenders, far superior to Argo, which seems to be getting the love.

See my own review at

Jim Cornelius