REVIEW: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

is as dark as its title



Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a war movie. Her films of modern warfare are not glorified propaganda, but hollowing representations of events. The filmmaker won both Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in 2008 for her depiction of a bomb squad in Iraq in The Hurt Locker. Her latest, a recreation of the search for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, is a frontrunner for the title this year.

Zero Dark Thirty follows Maya, a young CIA operative obsessed with finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is the story of Maya and a small elite CIA task force’s manic decade-long search for the Al Qaeda leader.

The film is as dark as its title suggests, and heavy as a lead bearing. The search for bin Laden is a path paved with explosions, dust and corpses, many of them innocent or friends. It takes a harsh, unabridged look at the extreme measures taken to find and kill one old man, a man the film’s tagline calls “the world’s most dangerous man.” CIA-sanctioned torture, bribery, and seemingly endless collateral damage are rampant.

Maya loses herself in her work, her persona eroding and becoming one with her goal. Rarely does she smile or seem happy, instead she is in a near-constant state of exhausted disappointment. Her friend at one point asks worriedly, “Do you have any friends at all?”

Zero Dark Thirty’s appeal is in its composition. It is pieced together so as to neither be entirely a film about Maya nor entirely a film about bin Laden. It is neither a success story nor a failure story. It uses no archival footage or look-alikes, and its brief allusion to 9/11 is somber rather than dramatic.

Numerous characters are gently humanized to be slaughtered heartlessly. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles seem to overwhelm the few small breakthroughs.

Between the candid scenes of gainless torture, tension, espionage and death, these events contribute to the slow regression of Maya’s calm intelligence to fierce insistence. Her outspoken ideas collapse into shouted demands for more work to be done. Despite having never seen the man she is after, she is more dedicated to him than any of her colleagues.

The long search for bin Laden, of course, comes to fruition in a sequence shown almost entirely in the dark or through night vision, but Zero Dark Thirty offers little along the lines of triumph. A single “Whoop!” of relief from Chris Pratt (of Parks & Recreation fame) is the only celebration.

After watching so much be sacrificed for this victory leaves nothing but a wide emptiness. Zero Dark Thirty is the blackest film in recent history, a film to choke on. The truth hurts.