Film review: Controversial ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Riveting Look At Hunt For Osama

Zero Dark Thirty 1Zero Dark Thirty should do well at the box office just because of the controversy it has kicked up. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting look at the hunt for Osama bin Laden (aka “Usama bin Laden” or “UBL” as he’s often cited in the movie) has found many critics inside the government and out because its storyline creates the impression that torture was the key to finding the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is even looking into the matter and wants to know what the Central Intelligence Agency told Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who also worked with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker). It’s a fair question – for a government organ founded and perpetuated on secrecy their much-ballyhooed cooperation with the filmmakers raises an obvious red flag. There were times watching Zero Dark Thirty and its one-sided view (in depiction and dialogue) of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” when I was unpleasantly reminded of The FBI Story, a 1959 film starring James Stewart which was basically a propaganda piece overseen by J. Edgar Hoover.

Zero Dark Thirty 2Bigelow – who was noticeably absent from the list of Best Director Oscar nominees announced Thursday despite a Best Picture nod and recognition of Boal – has defended her work on artistic grounds. The idea that an artist will sometimes provoke or discomfort others is not only reasonable but necessary for a healthy society, but that doesn’t necessarily get her off the hook if people are taking her fiction as fact. When a film opens with the statement that it’s “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” many may pay less attention to the word “based” and more to what follows.

The tone for this film – which is judiciously scored with finely-etched music from Alexandre Desplat – is set quickly as we hear a heart-rending 911 call from one of the people who would later die in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. That’s shortly followed by a scene where a detainee (Reda Kateb) is brutally interrogated by a C.I.A. officer named Dan (Jason Clarke). We watch this, as we view so much of the film, from the vantage point of Maya (Jessica Chastain), the composite character who represents several real-life figures engaged in the search for al-Qaeda’s top man.

Zero Dark Thirty 3Maya’s cipher-like quality (which apparently impressed enough Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actors to get Chastain a Best Actress nomination) is intriguing – is she merely a non-judgmental conduit connecting us to the story, or someone whose feelings about what she sees and does are buried deep because of professional necessity (and therefore dramatically more palatable)? That’s not to say she doesn’t have any emotions to display, since it’s quite clear how she feels when tragedy strikes a close colleague (which is as close as I care to come to a spoiler).

Chastain, Clarke, a “Yes, I’m playing former C.I.A. director Leon Panetta even if my name is never spoken” James Gandolfini and others in the cast do their jobs well, but Zero Dark Thirty (the film’s title, by the way, is code for the 12:30 a.m., a reference to the time of the final mission) isn’t about star turns. It’s an ensemble piece that stays quite riveting, particularly when human surveillance uncovers the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound where bin Laden may be hiding and in the final sequence where Boal, Bigelow and their colleagues show us the Seal Team Six mission that ended the worldwide manhunt. Cinematographer Greig Fraser nails that operation’s green night-vision-goggles perspective and other you-are-there moments; his work is an overlooked element in many appraisals of this film so far that helps make Zero Dark Thirty a mesmerizing story despite the understandable controversy swirling around it.

Zero Dark Thirty 4Zero Dark Thirty ( opens today (Jan. 11) in wide release nationally. For locations and show times in the greater Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (, Carmike Cinemas ( and Malco Theatres ( Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language, 156 min. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal. Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, Chris Pratt, Callan Mulvey, Fares Fares, Reda Kateb, Harold Perrineau and Tushaar Mehra.


*Photos by Jonathan Olley courtesy Columbia Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (