January 16, 2013 -- Although “Zero Dark Thirty” was on the ballot for year-end awards for most critic groups, including the one I belong to (Online Film Critics Society) most of us did not get to actually see this film until after the voting was over because the film did not open in most of the country until January 11. My group voted “Argo” as best film, but “Zero Dark Thirty” might have won if more of our critics had seen it. Of the two, I think “Zero Dark Thirty” is the better film.
You probably heard of this film long before January 11 because it is controversial. Some Republicans have criticized it because it shows an American, Dan (played by Jason Clarke of “Lawless”) torturing a terrorist suspect to get information. In fact, the movie does show Dan torturing a prisoner, but it doesn't show him getting any reliable information out of the prisoner that way. Instead, it shows him getting information by tricking the prisoner into thinking he has already broken and has given them information when he was hazy from lack of sleep.
It seems to me the criticism about torture in the film is purely political. As it happens, the same two actors who star in this film, Jason Clarke and Jessica Chastain (who plays Maya, the main character in “Zero Dark Thirty,”) also appeared in another 2012 film with a very bloody, gruesome torture scene, “Lawless.” Having seen both, the torture scene in “Lawless” is far more horrible, bloodier and gruesome than anything in “Zero Dark Thirty,” and members of Congress had no complaints about it whatsoever. The fact is that during the period of time shown in this film, Americans did torture prisoners as shown in the film. They didn't call it torture, because the Bush Administration re-defined the word in an attempt to make torture legal under the rules of the Geneva Convention, but it was torture, nonetheless.
The whole argument comes down to whether or not Americans got any useful intelligence from torture. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who had access to the classified details of this case and many others, says yes, Senators McCain and Diane Feinstein say no. Most people, aside from those directly involved in finding Bin Laden, don't have the facts to know who is right in this argument. From what I know about this issue, and the facts surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden, this movie appears to be very factual (aside from the torture dispute), unlike “Argo” which used some obvious fabrications to increase the suspense of that film.
Director Katherine Bigelow, who has been unfairly shut out of the Academy Award best director competition, chose not to hype the drama of the film with the usual Hollywood clichés like Ben Affleck did in “Argo.” It is played out in a matter-of-fact way, like a documentary. Step by step we follow the evidence with Maya as she doggedly pursues Osama Bin Laden for more than a decade. She travels all over the world and sifts through every bit of evidence, even as her superiors move on to other priorities, she stays on her mission to get Bin Laden.
This is another problem for the film when it comes to winning the Academy Award for best picture. The main character is a strong woman. A lot of male voters are put off by that. It could happen. In 2004, “Million Dollar Baby” was a winner with a strong woman (Hilary Swank) in the title role and in 1991 “Silence of the Lambs” won with Jodie Foster playing a strong lead character, but those are fairly rare exceptions. Anyway, Jessica Chastain is marvelous in this film, showing determination, grit, intelligence, strength and vulnerability at different points in the film.
The film shows that some of the factors fueling Maya's determination are personal. She is personally targeted for death by terrorists, surviving two attacks. Another terrorist attack kills a fellow CIA analyst. This only strengthens her resolve to kill Bin Laden. But there is a price to be paid for the torture, the loneliness and the losses suffered in this long single-minded pursuit of Bin Laden, just as there is a heavy price for America's “war on terror” in general. We see that toll in the final scenes of the film. What should be exultation in a great victory, the death of Bin Laden, is, instead, something more profound, deeper and bittersweet. This is, in the end, a very personal film. It rates a B+.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.