Zero Dark Thirty

wogma rating: Beg or borrow, but do watch (?)

quick review:

Kathryn Bigelow is back post ‘The Hurt Locker’, and there couldn’t have been a better follow-up to that cult hit than Zero Dark Thirty. A dramatized account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the film is immensely engaging without being unnecessarily dramatic, and more importantly, without ever transcending into jingoistic Americanism. Zero Dark Thirty is, quite simply, a thrilling and moving film.

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Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Running time: 157 minutes
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It has been a while since I watched a film that I hoped would never end. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, for me, was precisely that. A gripping cinematic adaptation of the long-drawn hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, I was amazed at how every second of the film held a sense of drama, even though the treatment of the film was far from dramatic.

Like most films based on real events, particularly those that are so fresh in memory, Zero Dark Thirty is the kind of film that almost anyone can paraphrase in a few sentences, knowing pretty much how the story proceeds, and definitely knowing how it ends, even if they haven’t watched the film. Yet, the film is so much more than just the story of how Bin Laden was found. For me, Zero Dark Thirty was partly a dramatization of a real life manhunt, partly a spy-thriller and mostly the intensely personal (and fictional) story of one persevering woman who makes it her life’s mission to find and kill the man who spearheaded the death of over 3000 of her countrymen.

The film follows Maya, a CIA agent recruited straight from college and eventually stationed in Islamabad; she has done nothing at CIA but look for Osama Bin Laden. From an awkward, mute spectator of the torture of captured terrorists orchestrated by her colleague to a ruthless executor of those very same torture techniques (though never losing her conscience or her discomfort with them), Maya obstinately tries every trick in the book, and some outside it, in an attempt to smoke out America’s most wanted terrorist.

Embellished with Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist but haunting background score, the film is technically top-notch. So much so that you’ll forgive some of the goofs; for example, the glimpse of the India Post signboard in a scene supposedly set in Pakistan (parts of the film were shot in Chandigarh). The camera that captures the action in Zero Dark Thirty is almost like another character in the film. It is always on the move, as nervous and fidgety as the characters themselves, almost as if it is as frustrated at the slow progress on tracking Bin Laden’s whereabouts as the head honchos at the CIA.

And if the camera is a character, then the soul of that character is undoubtedly the editing of the film. Splicing together chapters of ‘the world’s largest manhunt’ across over a decade, across countries, hierarchies and departments while never losing that personal touch - the fact that it is humans hunting humans - the film has been creatively and technically edited to near-perfection. The final 20 minutes of the film are the icing on the cake.

Post its US release, the film underwent its share of controversy. There is no doubt that the film’s much-talked about torture scenes are gruesome (but never disgusting or unwatchable). But to say that the film either glorifies torture or distorts the truth behind the extent of the torture is unfathomably ignorant. Maya’s reactions to the torture scenes and the manner in which she reacts even during and after she conducts some torture herself, quite amply illustrate the stand that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have taken, even though their approach to the film is remarkably close to neutral.

For the second time in under a week, I watched Jessica Chastain anchor a film by achieving a remarkable graph in character that makes the viewer feel a personal stake in the character’s story. That being said, her performance in Zero Dark Thirty is miles ahead of her performance in Mama. It is hard to imagine anyone else recreate the character of a frail, petite woman with nerves that can make most men nervous; she does it with various male characters in the film and you will never have trouble believing it.

Joel Edgerton wasn’t required for the role he plays, that of the leader of the SEAL team on Operation Neptune Spear. Having said that, the calming, reassuring effect of his sheer presence is hard to deny. A number of other supporting characters leave their mark; Jason Clarke as the man who initiates Maya into the interrogation process is excellent, as is Kyle Chandler, who plays the Islamabad station chief and Maya’s boss.

The film is never infused with any additional drama; the actual unfolding of the events does that by itself. As I mentioned earlier, so riveting is the narrative that I never wanted the film to end. At nearly two and three quarters of an hour, I didn’t find the film too long at all, though I suspect there will be those that will. Still, whether you are interested in the procedural aspect of the hunt for Bin Laden or the dramatized portrayal of it, Zero Dark Thirty is a film that must be watched.

This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at

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This page has additional observations, other than the ones noted in the main review.

Parental Guidance:

  • Violence: Plenty of torture scenes
  • Language: Some strong language and expletives
  • Nudity & Sexual content: Male posterior nudity
  • Concept: The story of the hunt to find Osama Bin Laden
  • General Look and Feel: Gritty, urgent and real feel

Detailed Ratings (out of 5):

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Zero Dark Thirty - Cast, crew, links

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Running time:
157 minutes

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