Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012) -- Overall Rating 3.25 / 5

Starring Jessica Chastain & Jason Clarke
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Rated R

Story: 3 / 5
Direction: 4 / 5
Acting: 3 / 5
Visual: 3 / 5
Overall Rating: 3.25 / 5
Explanation of rating categories appears at the bottom of each review posting.

Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room. If you’re the kind of person who has no interest in this film because whatever news outlets you trust to tell you what your opinion is convinced you that this film condones torture, stop reading. I’m not going to convince you to see it, because honestly it’s not the polarizing spectacle you’ve been sold on. 
Zero Dark Thirty was originally a script about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama bin Laden. Given the events of May 2, 2011 that script could be dramatically re-written with the kind of “hooray for us” ending we Americans love. Think about that for a second. This movie that supposedly is condoning the use of torture to get information about terrorists was originally about what an utter failure the hunt for bin Laden was.

Done thinking? Well, you were done thinking long before you made the decision to let the media tell you what you should and shouldn’t do.

As a film it’s a straight up mystery-revenge thriller. There are some twists, some turns, and some friends lost along the way. It has some good moments, the opening is extremely effective, and the ending is pretty exciting, despite knowing how it all goes down.

Like the Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow elevates sub-A grade material into something a little more powerful. In less capable hands this story could have turned into something like the Taken films. Is the overall film Oscar caliber? I don’t think it is, but shamefully she didn’t get a nomination for direction, which is, without question, the film’s strongest area. The screenplay is straight down the middle. It’s effective, but despite its infamous reputation, takes very few risks.

Jessica Chastain is good, but not great. She’s well directed, but hardly turns some amazing performance. No disrespect to her, but anyone in that role would have been just as good given the direction. In regards to her character I will say that she is probably one of the best written female film leads in ages. What makes me say this? Because change her name from Maya to Michael, switch her into a man and it’s the same character. Her gender doesn’t factor into it. Weaker material would force this to be an issue. “See, she’s a woman, that’s why she cares more about issue XYZ. And because she has ovaries she has to work harder to prove she can get the job done.” None of that. She simply is, her motivation is clear, she has a job to do and she wants to do it well. Maybe in another version of the script there was a failed romantic sub-plot or a long diatribe about how she has to sacrifice her duty as a woman (child bearing, cooking, cleaning, complaining, etc) in order to compete in the “man’s world”, but thankfully it didn’t make the final cut. A well written character is the character first and everything else second.

Oh and spoiler alert… the key piece of information that leads to them finding Osama bin Laden doesn’t come from torturing someone. The film makes that extremely clear. It also makes it very clear that billions were spent to hunt this man down while other terrorist cells continued to operate, threatening (and taking) the lives of people all over the globe.

Explanation of Ratings

All ratings are on a 5 point scale where 1 is the lowest possible score. A score of 3 indicates the film was simply effective in this regard. A score of 5 indicates perfection in a given category. The overall rating is a simple average of the four scores.

  • Story -- How well the film was written?  Did the story make sense?  Were there plot holes?  Was the dialogue natural for the style/genre?
  • Direction -- How well was the film put together?  Did all of the elements come together properly?  How was the pacing?  Was the tone consistent and effective?  A subcategory of this would be editing, but for the purpose of these reviews it is combined into one category.
  • Acting -- How good were the performances?  In a drama did the lead actor/actress draw the audience in?  In a comedy where the performers funny?  This is an amalgam score of all the performances in the piece. A single great performance can elevate the entire score, but a bunch of bad performances can just as easily bring it down.
  • Visual -- How did the film look?  If there were visual effects were they used appropriately and did they look good?  Did the overall look enhance the telling of the story?


  1. The amusing thing to me is that as solid a character as Jessica Chastain's was, and the presence of another strong character who happened to be female (Jennifer Elhe) and a third minor but competent female character, this film would not pass the Bechdel test for a feminist movie. (The Bechdel test states that a movie must have at least two female characters with names and they must discuss something other than a man.) Bin Ladin and his cronies happen to be men, and in the hotel restaurant scene, Chastain and Elhe talk about work and dating, or the lack thereof. Thus, no conversation about something other than men.

    Thus, not only is this film a sick, nationalistic glorification of torture, it is yet another example of Hollywood's oppressive patriarchical attitude.

    1. I certainly wasn't trying to make a case for the movie being some feminist milestone, simply that, without even trying, it manages to have an extremely strong lead female character. While movies that claim to be some kind of feminist inspirational piece (i.e. The Hunger Games) turn out to be more of the same crap... weak little girl can't get by without a man's help.

      In Zero Dark Thirty Maya doesn't need "a man's help" to accomplish her goal. She needs "help", but it comes from all kinds of people. She's never portrayed as a weak little woman unable to cope with the big world around her. And if that's not a strong female character I don't know what is.

      I'm taken back to a conversation about bringing Red Dwarf to the US back in the early 90s. In the original British comedy two of the five main roles were played by black dudes, including the lead role. Their ethnicity is never mentioned. Jokes about the characters come at the expense of their class (Lister being a working class bum from Liverpool) and upbringing, not the color of their skin. In the US pilot the lead role was shifted to a white guy and that secondary black role (The Cat) shuffled between a black guy and a white woman depending on the re-write. This is because "The Industry" is convinced that dummies won't accept a person of African descent in a role unless we're constantly being reminded that he's "black". He has to talk jive, listen to hip hop, and be constantly at odds with "the man".

      The same is true when you put a woman in a lead role. "The Industry" looks at the script and goes. "Sarah... I assume that's a woman? Why isn't she cooking at some point? Or complaining that it's so hard to raise two kids on her own and hold down a career? How will the audience accept she's a woman."

      Well... the pair of tits help with that bit, but it shouldn't be relevant.

    2. Oh, I know you weren't making a case for the film being feminist. It just occurred to me that despite the film presenting us with a legitimately strong female character without any of the usual bullshit, it still wouldn't qualify as acceptable by certain feminist standards. You cheuvanistic pig.

      Your example of Red Dwarf is excellent. It's a shame that Hollywood.... well, let's not limit ourselves, nearly all major marketing agencies continue to believe that all of us are idiotic racial and gender stereotypes. This, in turn, begs the question, how much of our idiocy (it'd be dishonest to pretend there aren't, for example, women stupid enough to be unable to identify with a female character unless she frequently discusses raising kids, weddings, struggling to get by in a man's world, menstruation, or yogurt) is a result of how we are socialized by marketing?