Review of Zero Dark Thirty and Bigelow’s Dispute

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Kathryn Bigelow’s newest film hovers the line between suspense-drama and documentary. Bigelow claims Zero Dark Thirty to be “based on first-hand accounts and actual events,” but is receiving speculation about the accuracy. One thing is for sure, after seeing this film on the big screen, I was left with silent contemplation. I really didn’t know what I thought of it. (Spoilers Below)

The film opens with a black screen, where the viewers must listen to a myriad of audible calls concerning the 9-11 terrorist attack. This unusual opening forced me to focus, which is ironic considering how sidetracked I initially felt, unable to use the sense I came to use. As a result, my senses were inherently enhanced throughout the rest of the film. Nice little trick you have there, Bigelow. Next we see a torturing scene, which many claim to be excruciating to watch. I guess they’re not huge Tarantino fans. The torturing really wasn’t that bad. I thought it would get worse; every scene implicated the potential. Thankfully, the growing suspense of worsening torture was false. The torturer, Dan, played by Jason Clarke, swelled with psychologic dialogue while acting both roles of the good cop and the bad cop (but not the ugly cop), as he repeated, “When you lie, I hurt you.” Clarke really shined, in my opinion, as he deals with the reality of being a torturer in the CIA. Dan seems regrettably experienced in torturing, and conveys a clear desire to stop later in the film. To be honest, with such a “soft” torturing scene, and such a sensible torturer, I’m not sure why the film garners so much criticism.

Even though I appreciate the sensitivities shown in the film, I feel that this event as portrayed in the movie was sensationalized. For some reason American films have no problem showing heartlessness from another country, but when it comes to home, they lessen the fact. (Or is that just me?) Anyway, the accuracy of this film is challenged due to too much torture, or the “impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin” (Huffington Post). The CIA is disputing Bigelow’s claim of Zero Dark Thirty being based on true events, and recently issued a public message explaining why. Check out the entire letter here. I’m not sure which side to believe, but after reading a few articles, either Bigelow didn’t do enough research, or the CIA is attempting to pull the wool over our eyes. Bigelow defends,

“I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.”

Whichever the case, it sure does make for a more exciting review!

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If Kathryn Bigelow does one thing extraordinary in this film, it’s suspense. The last thirty or so minutes of the film could reinvent the definition of the word. I’ve never felt so anxious about something so real portrayed in a film before. That’s significant. On the other hand, in between these moments of great tension, I felt the film drag a little. Additionally, as the ending anticipation of finding Bin Laden grew and grew, so much so that I was widening my eyes and curling my toes, the moment they do is unexpectedly brief, and disappointing. However, this is likely due to factuality of events, so I can’t take off points.

Jessica Chastain’s performance was, for lack of a better word, concise. Never once did I think Chastain was overreacting, under-reacting, or reacting in any unconvincing way. A scene that comes to mind is when Maya confronts her director about his prioritization of finding Bin Laden, and shouts, “You don’t know Pakistan. I know Pakistan.” This moment alone confirms not only Maya’s absolute devotion to her job, but Chastain’s understanding of Maya’s perspective. Her pale, feminine exterior clashes with the gritty, surreptitious setting. Even her soft, scarlet curls juxtapose her earnest blazers and neutral-colored attire. Overall, Maya is a workoholic, and an antisocial, tenacious human being. The moment she befriends a rival female in the office, she soon after loses her to a suicide bomber, which has to be one of the most surreal moments of the movie. By the way, the visual effects, i.e. bombs, explosions, gunfire, were outstandingly satisfying, not to mention the “black hawk” stealth helicopters used for the raid toward the end.

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All in all, I believe this film to be politically and psychologically thoughtful, suspense-driven, and led by performance-heavy acting. Kathryn Bigelow is gradually becoming a master of her genre. Even though this film is great, I will not say it’s my favorite. I commend Bigelow’s devotion to truthfulness and event-based plot, and admire the weighty subject matter, but I will probably never buy this movie.

I give Zero Dark Thirty 4.5 stars out of 5!

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