Steve Leadbetter’s review published on Letterboxd:
I can't decide if Kathryn Bigelow likes touching a nerve or finding a vein. Either way, all of her recent work has been unapologetically patriotic, unilateral and even nationalistic. With The Hurt Locker, she opened a can of worms that was simply bursting to get out and be heard, whether we liked or agreed with it or not. Off the back of the undeniable success that made Jeremy Renner what he is today (and what Bigelow herself has now become), she is at it again, with her finger apparently on the pulse of the American public, milking her audience for all of the pride she can.
And with Zero Dark Thirty, she starts early, opening the picture with a black screen, adorned only by radio transmissions, uttered by faceless, terrified victims of September 11th, as if we needed reminding of the wrongs of that day and also justifying the actions forthcoming carried out to right those wrongs. Don't feel bad, they had it coming. She may as well be honest about her intentions from the outset, rather than dressing it up quasi-visible revenge in splattergun patriotism.
The accusations and political machinations that have sprung from the films' release, it's CIA public relations and the very real and honest arguments about the benefit of torture and the portrayal of such for the purposes of entertainment are many and varied, and mostly rightly hollered. The fact that this is a movie and not a documentary is an excuse already being bandied around by these film-makers who like artistic and critical attention when it comes to the deft framing and subtle use of shading, but are not so keen to be drawn on the moral value of their product which unfortunately for Bigelow seems to be just as important to those with brains to think and not just eyes to watch.
If you don't want to make a documentary, then don't film your movie in that 'journalistic style' that Bigelow herself has claimed it is. Can she have it both ways? Is it a piece of entertainment, albeit in poor taste and careless execution, or good old honest propaganda that wants to win an Oscar? If, as has been said, waterboarding is 'not a spectator sport', should we as an audience, or Bigelow as a film-maker be complicit in its reconstruction when selling tickets to tell a story? Clearly, evidence would suggest that this act of torture was not responsible for the discovery of the target in this case, so why essentially glorify the act of torture when it has no part? Is it purely nothing more grisly than slowing down to get a better look at a car accident. Is Bigelow showing us our own true nature with a bucket of water and a flannel?
Regardless of which side of the fence you plant your feet, it cannot be denied that as a marketing excercise, having senators write to the film studio to complain about the content is like slapping 'video nasty' on a VHS in 1983 and simply waiting for the cash to fall from the heavens. It may not be pretty, but it is predictable. This is just another example of there being no such thing as bad press.
As a piece of entertainment, there are unfortunate elements that didn't need to be told, it is slightly overlong with incidental payoffs for the viewer throughout that are probably too few and too thinly spread. The mood is oppressive, yet never hits paydirt because it is entrenched in its own importance, never really allowing the viewer to be actually entertained, more educated throughout. Whether that is bad thing will largely depend on your point of view. Bigelow, as Oscar winning Director, has made a inciteful film, and you need to ask yourself why and if being complicit and blinkered with regard to its creation is acceptable. If for no other reason than the person directing it, it will no doubt gain suitable momentum for the Oscars, a fact that will say more about the Academy voters than anything, but what else is new?
There are some fine acting performances here and if only for this , it is demanding and deserving of a viewing, but despite the fact that it has been made, the question should be why and if it should even exist. For the film to engage people on this kind of level says alot about the content and about how Bigelow has struck another chord with her viewers. It is smart enough to retain credibility and credible enough to impress cinematically, even if thematically, it could be accused of being morally redundant.