Jessica Chastain as Maya
Jason Clarke as Dan
Reda Kateb as Ammar
Kyle Chandler as Joseph Bradley
Jennifer Ehle as Jessica
Harold Perrineau as Jack
Jeremy Strong as Thomas
J.J. Kandel as J.J.
Jeff Mash as Deputy Director of C.I.A.
Joel Edgerton as Patrick – Squadron Team Leader
Chris Pratt as Justin – DEVGRU
Taylor Kinney as Jared – DEVGRU
Callan Mulvey as Saber – DEVGRU
Siaosi Fonua as Henry – DEVGRU
Phil Somerville as Phil – DEVGRU
Nash Edgerton as Nate – DEVGRU EOD
Mike Colter as Mike – DEVGRU
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Part “Homeland,” part “Call of Duty,” and part Tom Clancy drama, “Zero Dark Thirty” manages to make an interesting film despite the fact that we already know the ending and the events played out extensively on the evening news so recently.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is based on the events leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In 2003, Maya is a young up and comer at the CIA. Despite being quiet and unassuming, she has a reputation for being quite tough and smart. She’s assigned to Pakistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Maya comes under the mentorship of Dan, a brutal old school interrogator who has been on the trail of bin Laden for a long time.
After years of interrogating many terrorists, Dan has had enough and is ready to return to a desk job at the CIA, but Maya becomes more and more obsessed with finding the terrorist leader. And as her quest becomes personal, her peers start questioning her judgment. But when she finally gets a lead on a man reputed to be bin Laden’s personal courier, everyone must ask if she’s grasping at straws or if she has finally found the first solid lead in catching the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
I will admit that I have little to no desire to watch any films based on September 11th, the war in Afghanistan, or Osama bin Laden. It’s all still too fresh for me even 11 years later and I get enough information on it from the news. I generally go to the movies to escape reality, not to relive it. I also thought it was especially tacky to see Hollywood scramble to make a movie based on the killing of bin Laden before the body was even cold. It felt more like tabloid tactics or TV movie standard procedure than responsible filmmaking. So imagine my surprise when I really liked “Zero Dark Thirty.”
If I had to describe this film to anyone, I’d call it 2/3 “Homeland” and 1/3 “Call of Duty” with dashes of Tom Clancy thrown in. A majority of the film shows Maya interrogating terrorists and demanding information on men whose names I can’t pronounce. It felt a LOT like Claire Danes frantically trying to track down Abu Nazir on “Homeland.” Despite the similarity, it works. Once the interrogations are over, the movie focuses on all of the spy tactics used to track down the courier. For me, I found this particularly interesting. You see some of the CIA’s tricks for tracking him via his cell phone and as boring as it sounds, it’s quite intense. It’s also interesting to see how one of the most technologically-sophisticated spy agencies in the world can be foiled by the simplest means. It’s equally impressive and scary when you realize that luck is as much a factor in the spy game as skill.
But what most people will remember about “Zero Dark Thirty” is the final raid on bin Laden’s compound. It’s intense, brilliantly portrayed, and one of the most suspenseful scenes in film for the entire year. While you appreciate the training and skill of the SEALs on the raid, you also appreciate how Murphy’s Law comes into play during the operation. From the chaos of the helicopter crash to the cat and mouse game inside the building, it’s all nail biting.
The performances are great across the board. Jessica Chastain leads the cast as Maya. I assume she is an amalgamation of many real world players in this story, but she’s an interesting character. Whenever you think she’s going to be pushed into the background or dismissed, she surprises you with wit, determination, and a temper worthy of a redhead. Jason Clarke is also interesting as Dan. He’s brutal, scary and manipulative in the interrogations, but he’s one of the good guys. It’s an intriguing dichotomy. The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent. Jennifer Ehle is noteworthy as Jessica, Maya’s initial nemesis and eventual friend. Favorites like Kyle Chandler (“Friday Night Lights”), Harold Perrineau (“Lost”), James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), Édgar Ramírez (“Wrath of the Titans”), Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) and Jeremy Strong (“Lincoln”) all have small but memorable roles. I was also very happy to see Chris Pratt from “Parks and Recreation” play one of the SEALs. He’s a great comedic actor, so it’s cool to see him in this dramatic role. He also brings a little comic relief to this otherwise intense film.
“Zero Dark Thirty” has taken a lot of heat. It was criticized for supposedly glorifying Obama’s role in the killing of bin Laden. Seeing the final product, I don’t believe that’s the case at all. Obama’s role is minimized, and I’d even say this film does not portray him in a favorable light. He’s shown ending the torture interrogation of the prisoners and it’s portrayed as an act that takes away one of the CIA’s most important means of gathering information. Later in the film, when the CIA believes they know the location of bin Laden, Obama is shown delaying action for well over 100 days. This, too, is portrayed as being overly cautious. But just to keep the criticism evenly distributed, George Bush’s administration is credited for the ultra-cautiousness due to the WMD controversy surrounding the invasion of Iraq. So the blame and credit are pretty evenly assigned in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The film was also criticized for detailing military secrets. Seeing the final product, I didn’t see anything in the movie that struck me as being new or top secret. That’s especially the case when you leave the tail of your top secret helicopter on site to be paraded on the news. So I feel that most of the controversy surrounding this film is invalid.
What Didn’t Work:
As for my own criticisms of “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s a bit long at 2 hours and 17 minutes. I felt like a lot of the early interrogation scenes were repetitive and could have been trimmed down. It would have been easy to shave a half hour off of the story.
Maya is also shown as being exceedingly cocky towards the end of the film. Since we know she was right in the end, she comes across as brilliant. But the fact is if bin Laden hadn’t been there, she would have come across as a first class idiot. All of the information they had did seem questionable and a certain degree of caution was warranted in my opinion. While their caution was portrayed as dragging their feet in the movie, it was the right move at the time and with the information they had. Hindsight is 20/20, so I don’t think it’s fair to portray Maya as a genius and everyone else as an idiot. As James Gandolfini says at one point, “We’re all smart.”
The Bottom Line:
Despite the fact that we all know the ending of this film, Kathryn Bigelow still manages to deliver an engaging political drama, spy thriller, and military action adventure with “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s worth checking out.