Kathryn Bigelow's CIA thriller Zero Dark Thirty is 'riveting'

Jan 24, 2013

Hunt for Bin Laden 'makes Homeland look like Downton'. But does it distort the torture debate?

What you need to know
American director Kathryn Bigelow's thriller, Zero Dark Thirty, based on the assassination of Osama bin Laden, opens in UK cinemas this week. The screenplay is by former journalist Mark Boal, who also wrote Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker.

The film stars Jessica Chastain as CIA officer Maya, who has become obsessed with tracking down the al-Qaeda leader following 9/11. Maya transfers to the US embassy in Pakistan to hunt for Bin Laden, visiting a 'black site' where terror suspects are tortured for information on his whereabouts.

Zero Dark Thirty has been nominated for five Oscars including best picture, best actress (Chastain) and best original screenplay.

What the critics like
It's "riveting", says Katey Rich in The Guardian. Bigelow enriches and complicates the story we know from the news with unrelenting detail. "One of the most intense and intellectually challenging films of the year."

Zero Dark Thirty is an instant classic, says Cath Clarke in Time Out. It's a gritty, unbelievably tense procedural, with gripping journalistic detail, that "makes Homeland look as dangerous as Downton Abbey".

It's gripping throughout, with an impressive central performance, says Kim Newman in Empire. Chastain's "haunted, intense presence makes a human space" in a movie populated by mostly unnamed individuals.

What they don't like
This film was constructed to bring viewers to the edges of their seats, but we shouldn't mistake it for journalism, says Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books. To do so may well affect the unresolved public debate about torture "to which the film makes a distorted contribution".

Sign up for our daily newsletter