Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

An interesting thing happened to me while I was looking at the Wikipedia article for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: I realized that some sequences of events in the movie which I had previously assumed to be mere dramatic gilding were actually actual events that happened to actual people. Critics of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a ludicrously gory revisionist history flick about slavery, have quickly shifted the discussion of the film to one of just how queasy this realization can feel. That movie gave the horror of American slavery a campy feel; Bigelow’s presents the killing of Osama bin Laden as a thriller almost Michael Bay-ish in its unrelenting intensity, albeit much smarter.

Bigelow thus finds herself in a quandary because she is so daring. Few others in the movie industry would dare take on such a hefty event just a year after it happened, and for good reason: it would be very, very easy to mess up. Zero Dark Thirty takes as its subject not just bin Laden’s death but also the headache-inducing development of post-9/11 American foreign policy, torture, and the structure and practices of bureaucratic intelligence agencies. Even Bigelow’s excellent Hurt Locker (a deserved winner of the Best Picture Oscar), about a bomb disposal team in Iraq, was not so cripplingly tasked.

And yet Bigelow pulls it off. What separates Zero Dark Thirty from the indulgent-if-still-entertaining Django is its dedication. This is not dedication to a specific moral or political allegiance, as some critics have exasperatingly accused, but rather to almost the opposite of such: to unfettered accuracy. The movie is gritty and realistic, staring unblinkingly into the face both of terrorism and to the problematic politics of responses to such. There are more than a few explosions and shootings, but they never feel extravagant or manipulative as plot devices. Bigelow is interested in, as my good friend Conrad Tao puts it, the “semiotics of violence”. In Zero Dark Thirty, an explosion is never just an explosion. It is rather an opportunity for the audience to mine some sort of deeper significance–whether political or personal–from what they are seeing.

What’s so refreshing about this movie is that its thoughtful approach to violence and politics and the intersection of such never undermines its status as a straight-up great action movie and vice versa. Zero Dark Thirty, from its shocking opening all the way to its thrilling climax, in which you-know-what happens, is smartly gripping and grippingly smart. Whether or not a film delineating the capture and killing of the 21st century’s most notorious terrorist should be described in typical movie-critic terms like “gripping” is certainly something to be discussed. But Bigelow, more than any other director I know of working today, invites that discussion. That she does so through consistently powerful filmmaking is quite the added bonus.

–Alex Robertson, Editor-in-Chief

Posted by on January 10, 2013. Filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry