Why I loved Zero Dark Thirty

20:22, Feb 19 2013

I promised in my last blog to write about Zero Dark Thirty at greater length. So, here we go. I loved Zero Dark Thirty. I thought it was a gripping and driven piece of relevant storytelling.

For a story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, there is a surprising absence of jingoism or noise. It is a cool, tense and focused procedural that tracks from 9/11 to the day bin Laden got taken down. But it doesn't neglect traditional storytelling, with a single, strong-willed protagonist and the stakes if they don't find bin Laden held very high.

The film is punctuated with terrorist atrocities that drive home the cost of failure on the intelligence front. In a very clean piece of storytelling, we know what our protagonist wants to achieve and, most important, why.

In essence, it is the simple story of a woman who follows a hunch with drive and determination. It's a human vantage on the story of what happened after the towers fell.

It's amazing that a story can be told this well when everybody knows how it ends. But the inevitable ending actually improves the film. You can feel the inexorable tide of history as it draws us carefully and crisply to that hideout near Abbottabad.

The focus tightens slowly and subtly. And then we're in the chopper as it weaves through the mountains toward the hideout for a perfect and thrilling climax.


You know when you find an amazing TV series you love and you just gorge on the whole DVD box set in a couple of sittings? That's how watching Zero Dark Thirty felt. It was intense, immersive and utterly compelling. I didn't want it to end.

I have always loved Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow. Near Dark is a great 80s vampire movie, I remember studying Blue Steel at university and what can I say about Point Break? Only that it is one of the best action movies ever made. It is superbly and profoundly absurd and entertaining. One of those marvellous films that are both dumb and clever at the same time. Clumb, if you will.

But, like all great auteurs, you can see a thread running through Bigelow's diverse work. They are all about the extreme lengths people will go to in adverse and unusual situations to get what they want.

Johnny Utah jumps out a plane with no parachute. Jamie Lee Curtis kills a man in Blue Steel. The Hurt Locker is all about risking everything to defuse bombs in a war zone.

Zero Dark Thirty elaborates on these preoccupations. A whole country went to extreme lengths in the search for USB. Which brings us to the issue of torture. There is a key scene in Zero Dark Thirty when the characters, who have all been involved in torturing detainees, hear President Obama declaring an end to torture in a TV interview. No one reacts. Some cite this scene as evidence of the film's moral ambivalence, but I think it is merely how a procedural film should tackle the issue. Torture happened. It played a role in the hunt for USB. The intelligence community is driven, pragmatic and operates in the political landscape of the day. I don't see what is so controversial about those facts.

There is a moment at the end of Zero Dark Thirty when the lead character achieves her goal. The scene seems to ask the question: What do you do when you have achieved your life goal?

Well, what did Bigelow do after she won an Oscar for Hurt Locker? She made the best film of her career. (Not including Point Break.)

What did you think of Zero Dark Thirty? And what do you make of the whole torture debate around this film? Comment below.

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