‘Zero Dark Thirty’: The Early Reviews Are In!

Critics are praising director Kathryn Bigelow for her 'electric, sprawling and ambitious' follow-up to 'The Hurt Locker.'

One of the awards season’s most closely guarded features, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” hanged onto the Oscar conversation without anyone having seen it, but now, the first reviews from an early press screening have confirmed that those early assumptions may have been dead-on.

Praised as a no-frills but engaging procedural, “Zero Dark Thirty” has won over the handful of critics who have reviewed the highly secretive film about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. We’ve read through the first wave of criticism to give you an early sense of what to expect when “Zero Dark Thirty” opens wide on January 11.

The Story
“Even though it runs more than two-and-a-half hours, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is so pared to essentials that even politics are eliminated; there’s essentially no Bush or Cheney, no Iraq War, no Obama announcing the success of the May 2, 2011 raid on Bin Laden’s in-plain-sight Pakistani compound. Similarly absent is any personal life for the single-minded heroine; when it’s suggested at one point that she might want to have a fling, she colorfully replies that she’s not a girl who does that sort of thing. The film does question whether she gives up some of her humanity to so selflessly dedicate herself to this sole professional aim, but seems to answer that, for some, this is what represents the essence of life; everything else is preparation and waiting.” — Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

Kathryn Bigelow’s Direction
“It was obvious early on that the most important thing about an action scene for her is immersion, trying to make it feel like something experienced and not just watched, and she’s pushed all sorts of stylistic technique to do that in her different films….It is the invisible nature of her work that makes it so effective. Like Maya, she has endured well past the point when many people might have broken, and she stands now as one of the smartest working filmmakers, someone capable of finding exactly the right voice to tell a story and telling that story without any flourish. There’s not an extra beat in the film, not a wasted scene. This may not be like any other thriller I can name, but that’s one way you can tell that Bigelow and Boal have done something special here.” — Drew McWeeny, HitFix

Mark Boal’s Screenplay
“In the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Boal tracked down the particulars of a sensational exploit and, skipping the ‘non-fiction novel’ stage, created an original screenplay that provides a streamlined timeline of the hunt for bin Laden. The word ‘docudrama’ doesn’t hint at Boal’s achievement. This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.” — Richard Corliss, Time

Jessica Chastain
“Unlike, for instance, Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ Chastain plays Maya as fragile on the outside, Kevlar-tough beneath the skin. After narrowly surviving one terrorist attack and seeing another promising lead literally blow up in a female colleague’s face, Maya grits her teeth and swears, ‘I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden.’ ” — Peter Debruge, Variety

The Final Word
“Spanning two presidential administrations and approximately eight years, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is as dispassionate, clinical and grindingly thorough as an obsessed tactical procedural can get. But at two and a half hours, the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is also as gripping and riveting as any film in this fact-finding methodology-based genre…. While not as taut and lean as the more action-based ‘The Hurt Locker,’ ‘ZDT’ is an electric, sprawling and ambitious effort that’s easy to become absorbed by, and a picture that should impress those keen on the director’s intelligent, composed and determined brand of filmmaking.” — Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist

Check out everything we’ve got on “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Writer/editor for MTV. If it involves cowboys, spies, or hitmen, I'm there. All three would be ideal.