by Sarah Malone
Zero Dark Thirty, the title, has the cadence and slightly unwieldy precision of military lingo: code, but only cryptic until you’re in the know. It’s meant to be readily recalled and quickly repeated and understood. The tweak from the military “oh” to “zero,” with its sharper sound and richer associations—Ground Zero, Zero Hour, Zero Day, countdown to liftoff or detonation—is characteristic of the film’s method and conundrum. It wants to be authoritative (at two hours and thirty-seven minutes, it had better be). It claims authority or merit beyond drama. “Based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” announces the onscreen text at the beginning, referring presumably to accounts the audience doesn’t have access to, possibly events the audience doesn’t even know of. But far from reportage, the film is an expressionistic odyssey, as focused on a single emotional register as Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent it portrays, is on Osama bin Laden.
I wrote about Zero Dark Thirty for BWDR. I can’t think of another film that’s left me with as clear and unshakeable a feeling, and as much difficulty trying to parse the reasons for it.