Zero Dark Thirty (2013) – Kathryn Bigelow, War Gigolo

Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.

My Take

Word of advice; if Kathryn Bigelow ever challenges you to a dick swinging contest, walk away. Because if the size of her balls are anything to go by then you, and the rest of us, will lose. Lose badly. There are few tougher stories to tell with key elements sure to divide opinion.

I’m a big manchild. As much as my wife might like to remind me I am a sucker for arty movies about nothing where people smoke a lot I am equally about movies about spies and dudes in helicopters going “fudafudafudafudafuda” wearing nightvision goggles and shooting silenced weapons. So excitedly, I awaited the release of Zero Dark Thirty.


Kathryn Bigelow makes macho movies. I’m not talking about half naked sweaty men wielding ridiculous guns, spitting out one liners and looking like they’re one DNA strand removed from a mentally challenged frog. I mean movies about genuinely ballsy, gutsy situations where either incredibly smart, driven if morally challenged CIA agents (Zero Dark Thirty) or borderline suicidal if brilliantly heroic adrenaline-junkie, bomb disposal experts (Hurt Locker) go toe to toe with your nerves, stare them in the face and say “no, you blink first”.

A film about the hunt and eventual assassination of Usama Bin Laden (or UBL as he is referred to in intelligence circles. I’m practically deputised into the CIA after watching this), was always going to be an incredibly contentious project no matter how you approached it. Shoot it as a fist-banging exercise in the terrible moral vacuum of the CIA with it’s “enhanced interrogations” and callous attitude to anyone not on side and you’ll be seen as being disrespectful to the people who have lost their lives since 1998 when AQ first attacked the US Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania.  Shoot it as a jingoistic, flag waving exercise in back slapping and you’ll end up turning off portions of the States and large parts of the rest of the world. No easy task.

To her enormous credit, in my opinion, Bigelow found a middle ground where many would have feared to stand. A way to explore the story as a sequence of historically accurate (or not if you believe the Director of the CIA working in damage control overdrive after the movie’s release) events held together by a semi-biographical narrative of one agent’s unwavering drive to achieving her goal of killing Bin Laden. The CIA agents involved aren’t portrayed as monsters but people doing a job. One minute you are in a CIA Black Site where Jason Clarke is water-boarding a detainee and repeating the line “When you lie to me I hurt you”. In a heart beat you are with him, Chastain and the other normal members of their team sat around drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. When one of the team lets slip they are leaving to go back to a desk job they don’t moralise about their thoughts on what they are doing or how they are doing it. They do what many of us do in difficult situations; they make a glib remark about seeing one to many guys naked to diffuse the awkwardness. Mark Strong’s CIA chief openly shouts “bring me people to kill” in a room full of people and no one bats an eye lid at what to most people would be a remarkable statement. Never at any point do you get the sense there are second thoughts about the methods in play. In one of the most discussed scenes the team sit around watching Obama tell America and the World how he won’t tolerate torture. This provokes no reaction from anyone in the room. None in agreement, none in fist banging frustration. The silence spoke volumes.  And there’s no getting away from the fact this leaves a cold and callous feeling around the cinema. But for me the fact it creates that sense of a vacuum means it is successfully taking a neutral stance and letting the audience make it’s own mind up.


The discussions about whether the film glorifies torture have probably surprised Bigelow in their veracity. In her defence when making a detailed look at the hunt for Bin Laden and the actions leading to his eventual capture/assassination how do you skirt around the tactics used. How do you avoid the issue of torture? Answer: you don’t. Telling a story about the capture of Bin Laden without showing torture would be like showing a  detailed film about Japanese Second World War POI camps and not showing the atrocities that took place within. Whether you agree, deplore or are ambivalent about the use of torture to withdraw information, to simply skirt past it and pretend it didn’t happen would be remiss in the extreme. And Bigelow doesn’t blink or turn away her camera to the brutality of those interrogations. She never tells you what she thinks. Rather she forces you to take a stance by holding her camera longer than most on extraordinary (in the most literal sense) people doing extraordinary jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Not necessarily a stance on whether the use of those tactics are morally correct in the circumstances, although you’d struggle to come away without a strong feeling one way or the other, but rather whether it is an effective way of getting information. And in posing that dilemma she lingers a lot longer than many of her male counterparts would have the guts to.

The film itself shares a lot of themes and tones with her previous effort The Hurt Locker. It also reminded me a lot of Syriana. All were ostensibly films about extremely driven people who have no idea how to handle the World outside of their obsessions. In The Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner brilliantly portrayed the loose cannon, adrenaline junkie, bomb disposal expert capable of staring down a possible suicide bomber but incapable of going to the supermarket with his wife. Jessica Chastain does an equally as brilliant job as the single minded, obsessive CIA agent who is at times the only one seemingly bothered about finding UBL. She fully deserves her Oscar nomination. Maya is not a likeable character. Selfish, driven, obnoxious. Yet Chastain portrays her as a girl trying to make a mark in an obscenely masculine world, having to stand at the top of the mountain and shout the loudest just to be heard. Sat in her office watching hour after hour of DVDs of “enhanced interrogations” whilst eating doughnuts. Stuck inside bullet proof compounds in Pakistan with only your colleagues around you for company it’s easy to see how a person could become so obsessed with their work, even when that work would give most people an ulcer within 10 minutes of their first interrogation.

Bigelow handles a lot of sensitive material with a lot of class. The opening scenes of 9/11 are played as audio of real 911 calls against a blacked out screen. The images of that day are so iconic it is all to easy to use them as an way of tugging at people’s heartstrings. All the way through as times, dates and locations punctuated the movie I found myself going “oh shit I remember this, something bad is going to happen”. As a Brit my heart sank as the focus shifted to scenes of 2005 London. Again, she pulled away at the right moment but still not as quick as a lot of her peers.

The introduction of the Seal Team 6 unit on the raid on the Obattobad compound brings with it the last 30 minutes and the point most people will have wanted to see. This is the point where in less deft hands it could have turned into a back slapping, flag waving whoop fest. But it plays out in the same matter-of-fact tone as the previous 2 hours. The marines move through the compound in an emotionless manner, breaching and entering, breaching and entering led by Joel Edgerton (Warrior) and Chris Pratt (Parks & Recreations). Clearing each room with precision and callous regard for who blocks their way to the jackpot. It is a fascinating portrayal of what must have been a nerve racking experience for those men, knowing that they may be on the verge of taking down the most wanted man on the planet. In fact, despite obviously knowing what happens at the end (spoiler alert: they get him) and knowing they all get back safe I was till sat with my hand in my mouth thinking “shit, I hope they get him and all get out ok”. There was palpable tension throughout the whole 30 or so minutes, which is no mean feat for a story every one knows the details of. And when they return to base there is no soaring music, no high fives, just the occasional laugh and the sense of people coming to terms with what has just happened.

All of my ramblings aside I wish I could project the final scene of the film into your brain. Few scenes have wrapped up in 2 minutes the entire essence with such simplicity. A question, a look and a sense of loss like no other.

Conclusion: Go into this with an open mind about the subject matter and be prepared to be asked some questions. It’s long but you get a huge amount of story for your time. It’s not easy condensing 10 years of the most complex intelligence project since the height of the Cold War, but it never feels like a chore. Everyone should see this to ask themselves whether faced with the same dilemmas they could genuinely say they would act any differently. Whether you agree with it’s message I defy anyone not to still be thinking about it long after it’s finished.

Verdict: Must Watch


Taglines: The greatest manhunt in history

Director: Kathryn Bigelow – Ex-Mrs James Cameron turned recent Oscar darling, she is carving a niche for herself as the go to gal for tension fuelled stories centred around the most contentious war of our time. Who would have thought the woman who bought us Point Break would end up with the double whammy of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Might even end up with a book end pair of Oscars for them as well.

Writer: Mark Boal – Short CV consisting of The Hurt Locker and In The Valley Of Elah. Short but very sweet.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton


  • The movie was originally about the unsuccessful decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The screenplay was completely re-written after bin Laden was killed.
  • Jordan and the Indian city Chandigarh (capital of Punjab & Haryana states), near the Pakistani border, were used as stand-ins to duplicate scenes taking place in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some second-unit film footage was also actually shot in Pakistan.
  • In ‘No Easy Day,’ the first-hand account of the attack and killing of Osama bin Laden, written by a member of the SEALs team, the movie’s lead character of CIA agent Maya, is known only as ‘Jen.’
  • The climactic sequence devoted to the raid on Osama’s compound runs about 25 minutes, only a few minutes less than the real-life SEALs assault.
  • The stealth helicopters used in the actual mission were heavily modified Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks. Anti-radar cladding, like that of the F-117 stealth fighter, helped them avoid detection by Pakistani air defenses, and the extra blades in the main rotors and tail rotors produced less noise than the standard rotors.
  • In January 2013, on the brink of the movie’s wider release, three politically active members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Martin SheenDavid Clennon and Edward Asner, announced they were organizing a public condemnation of Zero Dark Thirty for what they termed its “tolerance” of torture.

On general release in cinemas everywhere


4 replies »

  1. What a write up! It’s amazing how this film has polarised so many people. I’m not sure how anyone can take it as back-slapping, but hey, that’s the greatest thing about films; they are what you make of them.
    I wouldn’t watch it again in a hurry, however I’m definitely going to revisit again in the future.

    • Thanks very much. Having studied US political relations and film (not at the same time) this was somewhat of a coming together which led to a bit of an epic write up. So thanks for reading it!! I agree, not one I will put on to pass the time but I will absolutely watch it at least once again in the next 12 months

  2. Good review. One of my favorites from last year, and one flick that I felt like got a bad-rap because of what they were going for. It was misguided, I’ll admit that, but I hardly think it was meant to be nasty or threatening with it’s ways. It just happened to show off that way.

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