The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

February 4, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: A Dark and Controversial Drama

Roger Thomas

Monday, February 4, 2013 — I should start by saying that I do not care about the controversy swirling around this film. Is the movie an accurate account of the events the led to the killing of Osama bin Laden? I do not know. I was not there. Neither were most of the people who will make up the audience for this film.

Are there embellishments of success, particularly when it comes to the scenes involving torture? I do not know. There are very dramatic depictions of torture in this film. (If you are a Dick Cheney fan, you can substitute “enhanced interrogation techniques” whenever you read the word torture.) As I watched the scenes of torture, I thought of other films that also had scenes like these: “Casino Royale” and “Slumdog Millionaire” to name two. The torture scenes in this film last longer and are a little harsher, but in all three films, and many others, scenes of brutality are difficult to watch whether they are historically accurate or not.

But back to the facts. Someone called my attention to the point that the facts in the film “Argo” are not always historically accurate. “Argo” is still my favorite film of 2012, accurate history or not. Narrative dramatic filmmaking is not about producing a historical document. Films tell stories, and many hold truth, but that does not necessarily mean they are completely true to the facts. And for me, that is OK.

I like “Zero Dark Thirty.” I think it is one of the better films of 2012. The thing I like most about it is the focus of the film. I like the character Maya and her determination. She was fully committed for finding bin Laden. While I watched her for almost three hours, and Maya is in almost every scene in the film, I kept thinking two things. The United States was lucky to have someone as dedicated as Maya serving our nation. She is symbolic of a great many people who are dedicated to keeping us all safe every day. The second thought I had may strike my readers as odd: “How much was Maya paid for her hard work?” Chances are probably good that she was a bargain. Could we ever pay enough to the people who work diligently on our behalf?  

Considering the film itself, there are many strengths. Kathryn Bigelow is a gifted director. (She is the only female to ever win a Best Director Oscar. That one was for “The Hurt Locker.” This time, regrettable, she was not even nominated.) Mark Boal’s screenplay is filled with dialogue and sometimes confusing language, but in the end, one understands enough to know all one needs to know. The film also has many technical strengths, even though it only ended up with five Oscar noms.

Ultimately, the greatest strength of the film however is Jessica Chastain. As Maya she is tough, smart and more confidant that anyone around her. Chastain has delivered one fine performance after another for the last two years. In both “The Tree of Life” and “Take Shelter” she played a loving and supportive wife and mother. In her Oscar-nominated performance in “The Help” during 2011, she played an eccentric young woman who needed a secret maid. She was also the best thing in this past year’s “Lawless”. She is beautiful and talented and in “Zero Dark Thirty” she is strong and confidant. After picking up the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, she may well be on her way to Oscar gold. She is so good in the role of Maya, I hope the real person she portrayed does something else that is worthy of a film, so Chastain can once again play her on screen. (The real woman Chastain’s character is modeled after is not named Maya.)

In closing, I think the only troubling weakness in the film happens in the last half hour. We have all heard and read accounts of the taking of bin Laden’s compound. Though it should be the climax of the film, I really felt the fight in Washington to get approval was far more compelling than the replay of a terrorist leader’s death. But that is a minor complaint. Kind of like whether the film is accurate history. It is a movie and one worth seeing.


Roger Thomas reviews films for The Stanly News & Press. His reviews appear at various times online and in print.