Posted January 6, 2013 by William Dunmyer in Drama

Zero Dark Thirty: Good Thriller, But Not a Major Work of Art

What is the most over-rated film of 2012? “Zero Dark Thirty” from director Kathryn Bigelow. “Zero Dark” is a good film; almost everyone will agree on that. But is it the best film of the past 10 years, as numerous critics have claimed? Not by a long shot. Bigelow’s previous film, “The Hurt Locker,” to name just one example, was far better and richer as a work of art.

“Zero Dark” is one of the better films of 2012, but I wouldn’t put it in serious contention for the honor of Best Film of 2012. It is likely it will end up on my Top 10 list for the year, but certainly not at the top.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is an over-long, detailed docudrama (160 minutes) based on actual events that led to the US government’s killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. It’s an espionage procedural, if you will. The film makes no attempt to get to know anyone involved in the effort. We just see what they do in the office. Anything they do separate from their jobs is of no interest to the film. Who are they as people? No interest. “Zero Dark” operates along the lines of the “specials” on the History Channel, just with a bigger budget, better cameras, and better actors. It covers the same thematic terrain.

“Zero Dark” may just inspire the creation of something new on basic cable: The CIA Channel.

The limited focus on espionage left me unmoved. I certainly don’t mind the inclusion of espionage details in the story. But for this to be the entirety of the screenplay was disappointing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to films to learn about interrogation techniques or CIA history. I can take courses and read newspapers to learn that. We have journalists who can provide that. That’s not what we have artists for — at least not in my book.

As a user manual on espionage, as a docudrama, and as a thriller, “Zero Dark” is effective. As a work of art, it’s rather thin.

Just about the only thing the film ponders is whether borderline-torture is an effective interrogation technique. Again, this is the kind of thing that journalists and policy-makers would assess. It doesn’t much seem the terrain of art to me. And the film doesn’t even engage with this inquiry very much. All “Zero Dark” wants to do is recount events and make you bite your nails. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, at least in its second half.


The character the film follows most closely is a relatively inexperienced officer (played well by Jessica Chastain) who gradually takes over the case, after years of brutal CIA interrogations that have produced little reliable intelligence. We watch her pursue angles that others consider fruitless. Through the long, meandering first half of the film, these leads become dead ends.

But halfway through the film, she zeroes in on a lead that produces real results. She becomes convinced of Bin Laden’s location, in a fortress-like compound in a small city in Pakistan. But without hard evidence, her superiors, including President Obama, aren’t convinced. She has to become very persuasive, which is interesting to watch.

When she finally gets buy-in from the top brass, there’s the question of what to do about it. Do they team up with Pakistani authorities? Do they go in on their own, without the approval of the Pakistani Government? If they go it alone, who’s to say that Pakistan won’t shoot down their aircraft? The US would certainly shoot down Pakistani aircraft that invaded US airspace.

We of course all know how it turns out, but “Zero Dark” is still one helluva nail-biter in its second half.

Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t once raise the question of whether Bin Laden should have been apprehended and brought before a court. The US is endlessly congratulating itself for living by the rule of law and being opposed to vigilante justice. But here’s a case where the supposedly so law-conscious United States kills a suspect who is unarmed, and no one raises a question about its lawfulness.

What I find most interesting about the Bin Laden affair is it’s a textbook case of something gargantuan in the world: American hypocrisy. “Zero Dark” doesn’t go anywhere near that. That’s probably a big reason why it’s so popular in America. Let’s see how the rest of the world greets it.

Incidentally, from what I’ve read, Zero Dark Thirty is a military term for 12:30am. Following the 24-hour clock, that’s 0:30.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.