One Big Scene: What Makes 'Zero Dark Thirty's Bin Laden Raid So Riveting

One Big Scene is a weekly column dedicated to spectacular visual sequences we’re recommending you see in the theater. If you have ones you’d like us to write about, let us know in the comments section.

The most memorable scene in Zero Dark Thirty almost didn’t make it into the film at all.
 
As legend has it, Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, were shepherding a “hunt-for-Osama-bin-Laden” thriller for years. But as they filmed vital sequences in preparation for the film’s release, the subject of their film – and the most wanted person on the planet – was found and executed by the U.S. military forces. Instead of going with what they had, Bigelow and Boal rewrote their feature, ending with a breathtakingly intense raid on bin Laden’s Pakistani compound … an unforgettable scene that you absolutely need to see on the big screen when Zero Dark Thirty expands to more theaters beginning this Friday, Jan. 11.  
 
 
What critics are saying:
“Bigelow's extensive staging of the May 1, 2011, raid is a prime example of virtuoso action filmmaking.”
- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
 
“[It's]a harrowing adventure behind the headlines that is at once a riveting procedural and, at the same time, a bracing political statement on the moral ambiguities of our war on terror.”
 
“Once in a long while, a fresh-from-the-headlines movie fuses journalism, procedural high drama, and the oxygenated atmosphere of a thriller into a new version of history written with lightning... [Zero Dark Thirty] is that kind of movie.”
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
 
The Scene:
Zero Dark Thirty opened in New York and Los Angeles late last year to qualify for Oscar consideration, a move that helped the film secure five nominations including Best Picture. 
 
The raid on Bin Laden’s compound has to be one of the scenes that cemented Bigelow’s film in Academy members’ brains. As the actors playing the brave men of Navy SEAL Team 6 storm a dark and mysterious fortress in search of their human target, the audience is reminded – perhaps for the first time – that this isn’t just a movie. It’s a harrowing, accurate depiction of the critical situation real soldiers put themselves into to achieve a long-standing goal. And Bigelow does justice to their service. 
 
The sequence, itself, is a coolly shot work of visual wonder, with Bigelow relying on night-vision greens and dark shadows to convey fear and uncertainty. And the actors move in military precision around each unsuspecting corner, not sure what danger lurks ahead. It’s like life-sized Call of Duty, with life-sized ramifications if the team were to fail.
 
The movie does not fail. Zero Dark Thirty is procedural as it builds to this final scene, a “victory” in the wake of our national tragedy that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s this week’s One Big Scene, and a sequence we’re sure audiences will be talking about for years to come. 
 

 
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