Zero Dark Thirty
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Zero Dark Thirty

The War on Terror yields a pyrrhic triumph.


The rumours of Zero Dark Thirty glorifying the demise of Osama bin Laden have been greatly exaggerated. Despite op-ed assertions that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal exult in the killing of America’s Public Enemy Number One—and, by extension, validate the use of torture by U.S. intelligence personnel in the course of his pursuit—the tone of their meticulous procedural is too somber to be mistaken for an endorsement, let alone a celebration.

On the contrary, Bigelow and Boal quietly subvert the jingoistic jubilation that greeted the fabled exploits of SEAL Team Six. The raid that resulted in bin Laden’s death, the filmmakers remind us, was a shoot-to-kill revenge mission—a pragmatic contravention of the rule of law that also saw children terrorized and an unarmed woman executed in cold blood.

But while Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the CIA hagiography that some have labeled it (see Argo for a recent example of just such an exercise), the question of the film’s stance on the efficacy of torture is a thornier one. That a key piece of intel is elicited and subsequently confirmed via so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” is a source of passionate contention among the film’s political detractors.

What’s beyond debate, however, is the consummate craft on display. Boal’s intricate script condenses the decade-spanning manhunt into an improbably taut two-and-a-half hours, while Bigelow’s direction is a master class in blending journalistic immediacy with finely modulated suspense. Jessica Chastain, too, is excellent as the film’s enigmatic heroine, whose monomaniacal pursuit of retribution culminates in a haunted portrait of moral compromise.