Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain on the trail of Osama bin Laden.


Zero Dark Thirty, Katherine Bigelow's terrific new terror-war thriller, achieves something rare in a Hollywood movie: It presents a hot-button subject—torture as a means of American intelligence-gathering—without the usual moral nudging. The paroxysms of outrage that this has stirred in some precincts of the pundit class are baffling, but predictable. These commentators are offended that no character in the film has been deputized to express the revulsion we should be feeling about what we're seeing—as if we, unlike the pundits, can't feel that revulsion without some sort of condescending assistance.    

The movie is a docu-drama about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 attacks. It opens with a black screen and an audio montage of voices from that day—cries of horror and despair—then jumps ahead two years to a CIA "black site" at an undisclosed location somewhere in the Middle East. Here we find an Agency inquisitor named Dan (Jason Clarke) supervising the "enhanced interrogation" of a battered wretch named Ammar (Reda Kateb), who is hanging by his wrists from the ceiling. When a newly arrived intelligence analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives, Dan tells her, "It's gonna take a while. He has to realize how helpless he is." Ammar is thought to be an Al Qaeda money-funneler, and thus to know bin Laden's whereabouts. Dan and his muscular interrogation team want to know this as well. "When you lie to me," Dan tells him, "I hurt you."

For the next 20 minutes or so, we see Ammar held down on the floor while a wet towel is placed over his face and suffocating gushes of water are poured over it. We see him pulled around on his hands and knees by a dog collar affixed to his neck. We see him crammed into a coffin-size metal box, which is then slammed shut. At one point, his pants are pulled down, exposing him to the newly arrived female agent.

Here, in the usual way of these things, we might expect Chastain's character to express an eloquent disgust intended to prompt a proper response to what we're seeing. But Maya is cooly professional. When Ammar looks at her and says, "Please help me," she tells him, "You can help yourself by being truthful."

Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal (with whom she also collaborated on the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker), simply show us what happened, leaving us to come to our own conclusions about the CIA's dubious methods. The filmmakers assume, refreshingly, that we are intelligent enough to do so. Before the movie's release, it was decried on the right (by people who hadn't seen it) as a commercial for the reelection of President Obama, which it certainly isn't. (Obama is only seen in a passing shot on a television screen.) More recently, critics on the left (some of whom hadn't seen it either) have been condemning the film as an endorsement of torture. That this is likewise untrue will be evident to anyone who actually watches the picture.

Ammar's brutal torment dislodges one tiny shred of information, but it proves useless at first. Much of the rest of the movie focuses on Maya's dogged pursuit of leads over the ensuing years, processing intelligence, assembling connections. She disdains brutal interrogations, which have proved to be almost entirely ineffective. We travel with her to Afghanistan and Pakistan in pursuit of leads. When she finally feels that she has determined bin Laden's location, in a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, she flies back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to persuade her cautious superiors  to organize a raid that will take him out. Agency director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) doesn't share her conviction that bin Laden is actually present in the Abbottabad compound, and is reluctant to take the risk of mounting an operation in a sovereign country. But as another analyst asks, "How do you evaluate the risk of not doing something?"

Along the way, Bigelow stages a number of extraordinary action scenes: a frenzied attempt to triangulate a terrorist cell-phone signal in the teeming streets of Peshawar, an explosive encounter with a duplicitous informant, a ferocious machine-gun attack on a lone agent. And while there are no more detainee-beatings, we are shown the other lengths to which the Agency will go pry out information. (In one scene, a CIA operative marches a reluctant source into a Kuwait City auto dealership and buys him a brand-new Lamborghini on the spot.)

The movie of course concludes with the assault on bin Laden's compound—a long, tour-de-force sequence informed by what screenwriter Boal says was extensive research and interviews with key personnel. Seeing off the team of Navy SEALs who have been assembled for the operation, Maya tells them, "Bin Laden is there, and you're going to kill him for me." And—spoilers are clearly impossible here—they do.

The movie is entirely concerned with process. Maya herself is a cipher—we know nothing about her life or her friends (she doesn't seem to have any), only about her grim dedication to her goal. And while Dan, the brutal interrogator, briefly expresses a certain soul-sickness about his ugly job ("I've gotta do something normal for a while," he says, electing to rotate back to the States), none of the many other characters in the film take time out to express moral reservations about what they're doing (even when an unarmed woman is gunned down). In addition, the movie's score, by Alexandre Desplat, is meticulously restrained, almost subliminal; galloping electro- percussion and triumphal brass fanfares are nowhere in evidence. 

This is a singular film. We see what is happening, and we're allowed to have our own thoughts about it, and to carry them with us out of the theatre. It's a movie that follows you home.


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  1. I think I wanna go see that movie. Looks like its gonna be good!

  2. Osama bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 attacks

    I’m not a truther or anything, but I’d just like to ask, has this ever actually been firmly established, as in with irrefutable evidence?

    1. bin Laden being at the top of Al Qaeda and having personally claimed 9/11 was his idea, it’s pretty hard to tell the difference between him and the person responsible for 9/11.

      Just like you might not be a truther, but it can be hard, sometimes, to tell the difference between a truther and someone who needs “irrefutable” evidence that bin Laden was involved with 9/11.

      Incidentally, “irrefutable” evidence isn’t required to believe in anything–neither in religion nor in science nor in law. We convict and punish people for murder on the standard of evidence that is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Irrefutable evidence?

      Has there ever been irrefutable evidence of anything?

      1. Yes, Ken Shultz is a cunt. Irrefutable.

        1. Didn’t mean to offend the truthers out there, specifically.

          If I did, that’s just icing on the cake.

          1. No, you didn’t even read his question which was basically “was OBL the one who actual planned the attack as opposed to just being the AQ figurehead?” Instead you with a characteristically long winded and asinine response, insinuating that Juice is a truther without having the guts to just cal him a truther.

            1. You didn’t read my reply!

              “bin Laden being at the top of Al Qaeda and having personally claimed 9/11 was his idea, it’s pretty hard to tell the difference between him and the person responsible for 9/11.”

              bin Laden began Al Qaeda as a way to network all the jihadis who were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. He funded and led Al Qaeda, and then he personally took credit for having the idea for 9/11!

              “I say to you Allah knows that it had never occurred to us to strike the towers, but after it became unbearable and we witnessed the oppression and tyranny of the American Israeli coalition against our people in Palestine and Lebanon it came to my mind.”


              “As I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.”

              —-Osama bin Laden


            2. Osama bin Laden built and financed Al Qaeda. He spoke on their behalf, and it’s my understanding that the other operatives in Al Qaeda acknowledged Osama bin Laden as their leader.

              AND Osama bin Laden took personal responsibility for the whole idea of attacking the Twin Towers.

              So who the fuck am I supposed to think is responsible for planning and attacking us on 9/11?!

              I thought these things were common knowledge.

              Do you already know about the Austrian guy that invaded Poland, or do you need some kind of irrefutable evidence of that, too?

              1. I see you still haven’t refuted the assertion that you are, in fact, a cunt.

                1. But you’ve conceded everything else?

                  I guess that’s progress.

                  1. The only assertion I ever made was that you are a cunt. I made no comment on whether or not OBL was the mastermind behind 9/11 other than pointing out that you ignored Juice’s actual question.

                    1. “The only assertion I ever made was that you are a cunt.”


                      “other than pointing out that you ignored Juice’s actual question.”

                      I answered it directly the first time.

      2. You’re a piece of shit fascist who thinks osama bin laden is a ninja who snuck into the CIA, hacked their computers like some scene out of Mission Impossible, found the code-name for the top secret database of Mujahadeen fighters “al queda” and then decided to name a global terrorist organization with it.

        Reality is, you’re just a good german, a stupid nazi fuck who can’t be bothered to use his brain and believes and thinks what he’s told to believe and think.

        Ironically, only a fascist piece of shit could turn the word “truth” into an epitaph.

        But at least you admit your reality is a lie.

  3. “As if we, unlike the pundits, can’t feel that revulsion without some sort of condescending assistance.”

    Sometimes it seems like the difference between Michael Moore’s documentaries and many of the general releases that come out of Hollywood is that Michael Moore tends to be slightly more obvious about his biases.

    Like what’s happening in politics right now, this seems to be a product of the hippie generation having come of age and running everything. Now every release for general audiences is supposed to be a Bob Dylan protest song?

    Gotta educate those stupid rednecks, you know? What’s the point of it playing in Peoria if it doesn’t explicitly offend the sensibilities of the rednecks there?

  4. Would it have killed the filmmakers to have worked Jack Bauer prominently into the film?

    1. Hrm, this is more of a Jason Bourne scenario, since it’s more revenge than threat nullification.

      It really would have been better if they’d have taken my suggestion of Maya having a loveable wise-cracking black kid that she had to take with her because her sister adopted him but then disappeared while looking for cancer-curing ants in the Amazon basin.

      1. The character being a composite of many different loveable wise-cracking black kids?

  5. You may wish to review the two articles about this movie by Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian. He notes that while purporting to be realistic and journalistic in its account, the screenwriter falsely claimed that CIA use of torture was necessary to find bin Laden’s whereabouts. The movie does “explains” to the American people, credulous at best, that torture is necessary and helpful. Quite a Hollywood movie.

    1. In neither of his two Guardian pieces (the first written before he had seen the movie) does Greenwald cite anything “the screenwriter falsely claimed” about the necessity of torture in finding Osama bin Laden. He does quote a statement by New York Times writer Frank Bruni: “No waterboarding, no Bin Laden: that’s what ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ appears to suggest” ? a plainly subjective assessment. I imagine some right-wingers might find the movie improved by a shot of Robert Duvall choppering into the fray to the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries.” Some left-wingers, on the other hand, seem to feel it should be a debate about the merits of torture. But the movie isn’t a debate; it’s a view of events that happened. I couldn’t discern any partisan political agenda. And I can’t imagine many Americans coming away from the film feeling gladdened about some of what they’ve seen.

  6. I would love to see this movie because it will probably be well-made and entertaining.

    But I’m sorry, when the political administration in power invites you in and feeds you information you’re not making a “docu-drama”, you’re producing fucking propaganda.

    We’ve seen the majority of the journalism media swallow without question every load of bullshit Obama has fed them. So why would we count on Hollywood for accuracy?

  7. The propaganda is more feminist than anything.

    1. In a bureaucracy when the men are sword fighting with their dicks, only a woman can come in and get things done.

      Still, KBig is a swell gal. At least she is not a weak, helpless millennial feminist of the Fluke set.

    2. I don’t think someone preoccupied with gender issues would make this film. The irony of the feminist agenda is that the women who are obsessed with proving that they can accomplish as much as “dead white males” are too busy pontificating to do anything of real significance.

      1. Therefore, no feminist propaganda exists, or it exists but was created by non-feminists?

  8. This sounds horrible, not in a moral sense, but in a movie sense.

  9. I have a real problem with the movie in this regard; I have more or less come to the conclusion that everything is a lie. I’m not being cynical. But, it seems no one is capable of telling the truth.

    1. Is there a black ops site somewhere the US runs? Really? Do we know this?

    2. Were the interrogators anything like what the movie shows us? Was there a character like the female lead? Or, is she a character many feminist people, men and women, want to exist?

    And so on.

    If the movie is supposed to be a mostly real account of what happened from 9/11 until Obama personally killed Osama, then great. But, I doubt it depicts anything of what happened even remotely accurately. And, I don’t want more propaganda fed to me, by the right or the left.

  10. This is really good, and i like this post…

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  12. What is the meaning of Zero Dark Thirty?

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