Zero Dark Thirty: A Lesson In Uncompromising Filmmaking


This weekend marks the wide release of Kathryn Bigelow‘s latest controversial war film Zero Dark Thirty. Now, a much wider audience can react to the unsettling piece of visceral filmmaking. Zero Dark Thirty is either going to evoke positive praise from those that are perhaps pro-war, because the film does feature sharp acts of warfare and military tactics and a lot of scenes can be described as patriotic if that’s how you choose to view the film, but then there’s going to be those that say it glorifies the torture and puts emphasis on America and how we as a country participate in the war on terror. But both of those stances are completely undermining everything that Bigelow has done and everything that she’s trying to say.

I’m going to skip the whole review routine on this one, because I feel like my colleague Sean Canfield summed up the film rather nicely in his review. If you’re looking for an Oscar-level performance-driven film then you’re simply going to have to check out Zero Dark Thirty at some point, because Jessica Chastain and especially Jason Clarke exceed expectations and make Bigelow’s pulse-pounder that much more real and accessible.

What makes Zero Dark Thirty worthy of extensive discussion is how unbiased and unafraid director Kathryn Bigelow is as a filmmaker that’s willing to push the boundaries, even if that means tackling such a touchy subject like the war on terror and the hunt and killing of Osama Bin Laden.

She’s no stranger to war films, having previously directed the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, but with Zero Dark Thirty she steps even further away from mainstream storytelling, yet by doing so Sony gives her an even wider audience. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about torture and if it’s right or not. It’s not even about simply killing Bin Laden. It’s about the old saying — the ends justifying the means and if that’s an excusable reason for some of the things America has done to ensure the death of a man responsible for many deaths.

Bigelow’s not trying to paint America as the heroic country that brought a killer to justice. She’s also not too hung up on revealing America’s dirty war tactics of torturing. She’s locked in on a grander story of inner-turmoil and how one woman looks beyond her initial gut-reactions to get the results that she desperately needs.


It’s about obsession and how that can lead you down roads that you’d never in a million years believe possible. Jessica Chastain‘s Maya might be the lady that brought down Bin Laden, but Chastain and Bigelow seem to be more fixated on the mindset one must put themselves in to give such vile orders. She might not be seen directly on the screen telling someone to torture a prisoner, but she’s more than a bystander sitting back and watching. She’s a participator and some of the grueling acts portrayed in this film show just how far people are willing to go to get the answers that they need.

And all of this is shown without a lean towards one side of the playing field. Zero Dark Thirty is a nasty beast that gets under your skin early on and reminds you just how inhumane some of our brightest men and women can be when driven by revenge and fear. The film could have taken the high road and ended on a positive note, with the killing of Bin Laden and the success for the men and women that participated in the mission, but Bigelow instead plays things on a low key, often re-visiting Maya and focusing on her struggle with accepting that it’s over.

There’s a scene where Maya sits in an empty chopper as she waits for takeoff and she suddenly breaks down into tears. Some might say these are tears of joy that accompany the feeling of a sense of accomplishment, but I’d just as easily interpret them as tears of regret for the things she’s done to get her to this point. Not tears of regret for actually killing Bin Laden, but tears as a result of the long journey that lead her to killing him.

And it’s that ability to double-think every choice, every scene and every character in the film that gives Zero Dark Thirty a strong edge above the rest of the Oscar-contenders and other good films in general. It’s constantly playing both sides, shedding enough light on the good and the bad, without ever sympathizing solely for one country, one person or one group of people.

Zero Dark Thirty is an unsettling, yet tense film that evokes so many conflicted feelings. It’ll stir you up and spark discussion for hours. It’s never afraid to intelligently discuss the topics on hand and tread over things with an unshielded eye.

Go see it this weekend and let me know where it sits with you.

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