Home Movies Review: Kathryn Bigelow “Zero Dark Thirty” Exposes Bin Laden Hunt and Kill

If anyone worried that Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden would be a political statement promoting Barack Obama they can relax. Bigelow and Mark Boal have made a very focused and harrowing thriller that centers on the real life female CIA agent who was obsessed with catching and killing bin Laden. Jessica Chastain leads a huge cast, and puts herself right into competition with Jennifer Lawrence of “Silver Linings Playbook,” for Best Actress in a Drama. And even though it’s a military movie, “Zero Dark Thirty” really stars Chastain and Jennifer Ehle, with the men of the film–played by Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass and Harold Perrineau– taking secondary but important roles.

The most interesting thing right off the bat is that “Zero Dark Thirty” is not political. President Obama makes a brief appearance seen off a TV and it’s not necessarily positive. While American intelligence is water boarding prisoners, Obama is seen saying he doesn’t believe in torture. The whole first fiften minutes of so is taken up with the waterboarding of a prisoner. Once you see it, you’ll be writing to your congressman to prevent it from happening again. But Obama disappears after that. And the CIA and the military take over.If Bigelow and Boal got secret access to the Situation Room from the time Osama bin Laden was killed, you don’t see it.

What you do see is the CIA doing something successful after many botches and tragedies in the war against terrorism. One scene that stands out is a meeting in Washington of the principle CIA players. Mark Strong, who’s great, comes in starts screaming at them there is no “secret” other group working on the problem. They’re it, and they’ve got to produce results.

Initially, with the torture scenes and the introduction of Chastain as Maya, the red haired take no prisoners agent, you do feel like you might be watching “Homeland: The Movie.” But Bigelow is a consummate filmmaker. Her movie grows and flourishes from that point on. Boal’s screenplay isn’t so much about backstory for the characters (there isn’t any) but making them interesting enough to follow through this crusade. It’s to his and Chastain’s credit that Maya gets richer and develops more layers as the film progresses, particularly once Ehle’s very brilliant agent exits the story. (I don’t wan to give too much away.)

So for now: “Zero Dark Thirty” is a likely Best Picture nomination, with kudos to all involved. Chastain and Ehle are the standouts. And there will much discussion of this film as we come through the week…

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Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
56 replies to this post
  1. It appears to me that neither the author of this column, nor any of those making wise ass comments about water boarding have any idea what torture really is. It also occurs to me that you probably don’t have any family who is serving or has served in the military since the first Iraq war! The true and factual horror these radical extremists have demonstrated over and over again, with IED’s against our troops; suicide bombers who have no problem taking the lives of innocents as well as their own; individual citizens (contractors, journalists, etc.,) being beheaded or burned and hung from bridges are just a few examples of real, true torture and inhumane treatment. If it weren’t for the folks who utilized water boarding on THREE (that’s right) THREE TERRORISTS, the information necessary to eliminate Osama Bin Laden would NEVER have been uncovered. We will never know the number of our troops lives that have been saved because these disgusting individual is dead! As someone who has family serving in the military, I say there is NO comparison between the fact of the terrorist’s methods, and the fact of the method of interrogation used by our intelligence community. The end result of each of these methods ~ the 3 terrorists water boarded are still alive and unharmed! The same can NOT be said about the thousands of young men and women of our military, as well as innocent citizens killed or maimed by these radicals. I am grateful that Kathryn Bigelow decided to keep the White House, politics and hollywood out of this film, while allowing us to see the true heroes of this real life war story.

  2. What? You the non-stop whining about this being a campaign movie (even though it’s always been scheduled to come out after the election) was all for nothing?

  3. I know exactly what you mean. It’s not so bad. This whole thing about waterboarding as torture is overplayed. It’s just a fun way to get people to talk. So your mouth fills with water and you could gag or drown. People make too much of this sort of thing. Our forefathers would have approved! Certainly! What wusses people are now!

  4. Water boarding is the perfect method to gain information precisely because it is not torture. You can have a doctor standing by, tell the victim he isn’t going to be hurt, that they will stop water boarding him before he drowns, that the doctore will make sure of that, and his body will still reflexivly respond as if he were drowning. But he will never drown, or ever be hurt. I will write my congressman to demand that all democrats be waterboarded for lying about everything they do in government.

  5. Is water boarding really torture? It’s scary, it combines a fear of suffocation with drowning, but no one is being killed and there are no long term effects. Maybe it’s time for the liberals to start focusing on the problems instead of the solutions that are working. The Obama faithful 99

  6. Biff’s comment is emblematic of the liberal mind – he criticizes those supporting water boarding as lacking “critical thinking” skills and being losers, then proceeds to equate water boarding with the true torture, maiming, and medieval ritual killing done by jihadis. These events are morally equivalent, teaches Biff, precluding our complaining “when they do it to us.”

    Biff thinks a head lock is the same as a pistol whipping. Dollars to donuts he thinks those semi-auto AK-47 knockoffs are “assault weapons.”

    Liberals would be merely annoying but for the risk that their surpassing stupidity can kill us all.

  7. I saw Bigelow’s effort in THE HURST LOCKER. If her latest effort is anything close to THE HURT LOCKER, I will stay far from it. WHY? I served 24 months in Iraq, specifically the base where Bigelow said those Soldiers were based. The scenes depicted in that movie were so unrealistic I wanted to get up and walk out of the theatre. There were so many wrong things with that movie…too numerous to even start up a laundry list. So, my assumption is that Bigelow has not changed her spots. If it was FREE I would not walk across the street to see it. I am sure it might be entertaining to highly unsophisticated and uneducated people in terms of the most minimal understanding of the military but that is all.

  8. Please dont compare Japanese ww2 waterboading to U.S. waterboarding…. The japanese not only used water to drown their victims but would also use gasoline, and also jump on the victims stomach after it enlarged. What the U.S. did amounted to tickling a person compared to japans WW2 procedure……. you may continue


  9. I certainly won’t be writing to my congressman to stop waterboarding. We need MORE of it. It’s supposed to be ugly and unpleasant. That’s the whole point.

  10. How sad it is to see how many people believe in this fairytale. For all you useless idiots out there, the boogie man Osama died years ago do to kidney failure and was put on ice for political gain. I can only laugh to myself to see what a retarded country I know live in….

  11. The people being water boarded are animals. I have no problem with terrorists being water boarded. It’s called war, which they have declared on us.

    Libs better figure out who the enemies are and how to deal with with them.

  12. Barabbas Obama won by 9 million FEWER votes than he got in 08.
    He “won” with less than 51% of the vote……Hardly a mandate.
    Water boarding works.

  13. Oh my, but whatever bad happens, well, it’s Bush’s fault, or those mean, old, white Republicans! The Hurt Locker sucked so bad, it was truly awful, how it received so many Oscars was truly astounding, George Romero’s Diary of The Dead should have got an Oscar according to the academy’s logic! Why does Hollywood push such truly awful directors and writers on the public, I am sick of these elite friends, who are elite friends of someone who happens to have an idea for a film, please stop, the elites and nepotism are killing Hollywood!

  14. I, for one, would like to see more terrorists water boarded and then accidentally shoved out of planes on the way to Gitmo. We have to stop thinking that they will ever come around and like us or respect us. They hate us because we are successful and we aren’t a Muslim nation yet. Every Islamist that professes death to Israel and the US needs to be eliminated. This is a war that the left doesn’t think needs to be fought. It does need to be fought but at the ground level. We need more human intelligence, not less. Drones are great but when one of the Islamist leaders disappears with no trace, it works to subvert their cause more than the impersonal drone attack. We need to stop being squeamish when it comes to killing terrorists. Not one deserves a trial or Geneva convention rights because they don’t represent a warring nation.

  15. Well if being burned and scarred for life isn’t pain and torture I don’t what is. the Islamists are fine with it. If a waterboard stops that…

  16. So it’s OK to blow up or shoot enemy combatants to death, but not OK to water board them to save American lives? What kind of twisted logic is that?

    Calling waterboarding “torture” is a re-definition of the word torture. Real torture is the infliction of intense pain by damaging tissue in some way.

    Wars are won by doing whatever it takes to subdue an enemy. It’s no coincidence that WW2 was the last war we won, when we inflicted massive civilian casualties on both Germany and Japan. Given our current politically correct climate, we won’t be winning any more, which is the goal of the enemies who are working to deprive us of the tools needed to win them.

  17. “biff” wrote:
    >>if you support torture, you can’t whine and bitch if they do it to us<<

    If you mean that if foreigners were to capture an American conspirator with knowledge that could lead to capture of a terrorist kingpin who directed the mass murder of thousands of their fellow countrymen, and the American refused to divulge it, we'd be in no position to whine if they waterboarded him to get the info, I totally agree.

    On the other hand, if you mean that because the CIA waterboarded captured terrorists to get leads for tracking bin Laden down we'll have no moral right to object if Islamists torture innocent Americans for spiteful reasons, you're a damn fool.

  18. Does anyone remember the three navy seals that were court marshalled for allegedly giving a terrorist a bloody lip? B y the kardashian administration? I Didn t think so,but look it up,and by the way,they were exonerated of any wrongdoing

  19. From the trailers, it appears some chick, risking her life in offices and cubicles and in some really nasty meetings, was the hero and Seal Team 6 sort of helped out in some minor way.

  20. If waterboarding works, why did Khaleid Sheikh Muhammed get waterboarded 183 times and STILL not give up the name of Bin Laden’s courier? It was actually his strong denial of knowing who he is that led the CIA to suspect the guy’s name actually WAS important, truth that mind games far outweigh medieval practices.

  21. I’m glad the film centers on the people who actually chased Bin Laden instead of the people who use things like this for political gain. However, I have to point out that only a handful of enemy captives have been waterboarded, whereas tens of thousands of American military personnel – including my sister-in-law – have been wateboarded as part of their intelligence/Special Ops training since the days of the Jimmy Carter White House. We are exceptionall humane compared to our ememies, but war is not for wimps.

  22. sad at what our once great country has become…..i can remember thinking with pride that we would never torture. too many folks have stopped critically thinking….back away from netflix reruns of 24 and Homeland, if you support torture, you can’t whine and bitch if they do it to us. They don’t hate us for our freedom, they hate us, and will continue to hate/attack us because we produce losers posting on this site. pathetic.

  23. So after watching a “few minutes of waterboarding you’ll be writing your Congressman to prevent it happening again”


    Er, nobody dies in the process, no one loses digits, limbs or fingernails. The same cannot be said for the techniques used by our enemies (or even some of our “friends” – People, it is a nasty world out there, no matter how much we would wish it otherwise.

    The bottom line is that without causing permanent, physical harm, it allowed us to find and eliminate one of our worst enemies who caused so much death and suffering.

    Sounds like a win-win to me.

  24. This is why the release was dlayed until post election……nothing to give Obama kudos for. Unexpected but it figures. Focued movie on the hunt done by the troops . You can bet if Obama was giving his command performance, he’d be front and center. Funny….

  25. There’s one dismal truth lacking in what otherwise appears to be a riveting motion picture….

    ” The whole first fiften minutes of so is taken up with the waterboarding of a prisoner. Once you see it, you’ll be writing to your congressman to prevent it from happening again. But Obama disappears after that. ”

    Sadly for America, Obama has NOT disappeared….

  26. If they hadn’t water boarded those terrorists, they wouldn’t have gotten the intel that caught bin Laden.

    Obama should thank Cheney for making him a hero (in his own mind).

  27. re: The whole first fifteen minutes or so is taken up with the water boarding of a prisoner. Once you see it, you’ll be writing to your congressman to prevent it from happening again”.

    Once again, every member of the US military whose job is to go beyond enemy lines has been water boarded. If it were torture then those who did it would be prosecuted – in my case, Jimmy Carter.

    The reason water boarding was used was precisely because the US military had so much data on its success and lack of long term damage – the very definition of torture.

    It is not that water boarding produces valuable information but that after going through it, the next set of questions get answered.

  28. Great review, with one exception. I am writing my Congressman and telling him that we need more water boarding. That how we found other vital information, some of which lead to killing Bin Laden.

  29. How can this movie not be political? Bush saying he doesn’t think about it. Bill allegedly turning down the chance to take him out. Obama saying that he needed to be brought to justice in the courts. The administration waiting months. Come on – other than the attack the whole thing is a politcal mess.

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