Zero Dark Thirty: Tandoori Chicken Recipe

Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle
(R, 157 min.)

"To seek, to strive, to find, and not to yield."  Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Perhaps the most striking element of this fine film is its surprising restraint. It is essentially free of Hollywood's usual addictions – political posturing, gratuitous violence, obligatory sex, and character exploitation.  Instead we get the real deal – almost.

And the fact that Zero Dark Thirty has managed to offend both ends of the political spectrum probably speaks for its integrity.  It compresses the ten-year hunt for Bin Laden into about two and one half hours on screen without seeming either hurried or disjointed. And even though everyone not residing on the planet Mars knows the ultimate outcome and probably more than a few details about the events leading up to it, we are nevertheless glued to the screen throughout.

In fact, the savvy director actually uses our foreknowledge to enhance rather than detract from the film's impact.  Much of that is due to Bigelow's artful manipulations of time and space.  Her opening, for instance, is testimony to the dramatic heft of understatement.  The events of 9/11 are already seared into our brains, the images themselves intentionally theatric.  

Bigelow plays on this knowledge by refusing to show any of it; instead the screen is blank, and we hear only a few static-filled snatches of final phone calls from the victims trapped in the doomed towers or airplanes. That rather than any overwrought emotional footage is immensely more effective in recalling our national trauma. We are free to remember our emotions instead of manipulated into them.  

Another artful scene is the actual raid on Bin Laden's compound in Abbotlabad, Pakistan. It is filmed in virtual time, taking about the same 30 minutes on film as it did in the actual raid itself.  Given that the previous ten year period has been condensed into about two hours screen time, this deliberate slowdown has even more impact on the audience. Never have there been so many doors to blow down in such excruciatingly slow minutes.  We are used to watching Hollywood versions of this, where setting the explosive takes just seconds of film time, freeing us to see ever more fabulous pyrotechnics on screen.  Here the expert SEALS almost seem fumble fingered as they carefully arm each door; the explosions themselves are almost anticlimactic. And the final sequence is filmed in the green haze of night vision, so we seem right there with the team, our hearts racing along with theirs.

Jessica Chastain's CIA agent Maya, anchors the film.  Her porcelain skin, fine features, and tiny frame mask the determined soul inside.  Yes, she cannot quite conceal a wince during an enhanced interrogation scene that quickly follows the understated opening. However, when the beaten and bloodied captive pleads for mercy, Maya instructs him to tell the truth if he wants his abuse to end.  

Her spirit cannot be squelched, either.  Maya endures two near death episodes, the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, and a second attack on her vehicle where she is only saved by bulletproof glass.  But her worst enemies are within the system – the bureaucrats and Washington politicians who do not share her obsession with hunting down Bin Laden. They still believe he is hiding out in the countryside, but Maya derides that as pre 9/11 thinking. He is probably in an urban area, she reasons, and it is the illusive courier known as Abu Ahmed, who is her link.

The details of tracking this Abu Ahmed are some of the most colorful moments on screen.  They include a misplaced file suddenly unearthed, a Kuwaiti playboy whose price for tracking down a phone number is one fluorescent yellow Lamborgini, and a network or market vendors who report Abu sightings with shiny cell phones hidden under ripe bananas. Even when the courier's compound is located and the satellite photos indicate someone very secretive and important living behind the cloistered walls, Maya's male colleagues are hesitant, predicting about a "soft 60 percent" chance that it is Bin Laden.

Maya records each day of their indecision with a screeching marker that scribbles the number of delay days on the glass enclosure of her boss's office. We are at Day 159, I think, when she finally gets the go ahead, due as much to her persistence and stubborn resolve as anything else. Even the SEAL team leader (Joel Edgerton) finds her confidence contagious.

Now a few words on the infamous torture scenes that seem to have riveted both sides of the political aisle. Several feel the film vindicates the use of enhanced inerrogation, since it helps the CIA find Bin Laden, while others are repulsed by any such causal links. Many feel Bigelow has been excluded from an Oscar nomination for Best Director due to what liberal Hollywood perceives as scenes that condone torture.  Bigelow herself has stated that the film presents the scenes but allows the audience to make up their own minds about its effectiveness or moral repercussions.  

Jose A. Rodriguez Jr, a 31-year veteran of the CIA, makes a compelling case somewhere in the middle. As  a supervisor of the enhanced interrogation program from 2002 to 2007, his credibility is both expert and perhaps suspect.  He states that the interrogation program was carefully monitored and bore little resemblance to what is shown on screen in the film.  

Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks. To give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face CIA officers had to receive written authorization from Washington. No one was hung from ceilings. The film makers stole the dog-collar scenes from the abuses committed by Army personnel at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.  

He also specifies that is was "a matrix of intelligence capabilities – including interrogation, other human intelligence, expert analysis, signals intelligence, and imagery analysis – that came together to lead the SEALS to bin Laden, " which he insists is covered in the film but overshadowed by the "misleading interrogation scenes at the start of the movie." Follow the earlier link and decide for yourself if he makes a good case.

All of which tells us that Kathryn Bigelow has accomplished her end. When a film stays with us long after the credits roll, when it is fodder for endless debate, asking more questions than it answers, we know we have experienced something apart from the herd. 

–Kathy Borich


Film-Loving Foodie

After nearly being killed in a hotel bombing, Maya prefers to eat at home rather than at public restaurants.  Why do I guess that this workaholic probably eats cold cereal for dinner or beans right out of the can? 

Let’s give Maya a break and cook up a special regional dinner for her.  This Tandoori Chicken is great on the grill, but you can also do a pretty good tandoori in you oven, too.

Enjoy!  Here's some advice from our source, Elise:

Tandoori chicken gets its name from the bell-shaped tandoor clay oven, which is also used to make naan, or Indian flatbread. Skinless legs and thighs are marinated in a tenderizing mixture of yogurt, lemon juice, and spices and the meat is slashed to the bone in several places helping the marinade penetrate and the chicken cook more quickly. The chicken gets its characteristic red hue from either lots of fiery chile or the addition of red food dye. We’re not that big on food dyes here, so we’ve skipped it, but if you must have your chicken bright red, feel free to add a bit of red food dye to the marinade. Now, you don’t need a tandoor oven to make tandoori chicken (thank goodness). You can cook it over a grill (charcoal preferred) or just in an oven with a broiler.

The key to tandoori chicken is to use bone-in thighs and legs because they have enough fat to stay moist under the heat of the grill. We don’t recommend this dish with chicken breasts, they’ll dry out too easily. The pieces should be skinless. Here’s a trick though, if you find yourself with extra skins (we bought our pieces skin-on), soak them in the marinade and slowly fry them until crispy. Better than bacon.

Chicken Tandoori 

If you don't have a grill, you can broil the chicken for a few minutes on each side to get some browning, then finish in a 325°F oven until done.


         3 Tbsp vegetable oil

         1 teaspoon ground coriander

         1 teaspoon ground cumin

         1 teaspoon ground turmeric

         1 teaspoon cayenne

         1 Tbsp garam masala

         1 Tbsp sweet (not hot) paprika

         1 cup plain yogurt

         2 Tbsp lemon juice

         4 minced garlic cloves

         2 Tbsp minced fresh ginger

         1 teaspoon salt

         4 whole chicken legs (drumsticks and thighs), or its equivalent, skinless, bone-in


1 Heat the oil in a small pan over medium heat, then cook the coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne, garam masala and paprika, stirring often, until fragrant (approximately 2-3 minutes). Let cool completely.

2 Whisk in the cooled spice-oil mixture into the yogurt, then mix in the lemon juice, garlic, salt and ginger.

3 Cut deep slashes (to the bone) in 3-4 places on the leg/thigh pieces. Just make 2-3 cuts if you are using separate drumsticks and thighs. Coat the chicken in the marinade, cover and chill for at least an hour (preferably 6 hours), no more than 8 hours.

4 Prepare your grill so that one side is quite hot over direct heat, the other side cooler, not over direct heat. If using charcoal, leave one side of the grill without coals, so you have a hot side and a cooler side. If you are using a gas grill, just turn on one-half of the burners. Use tongs to wipe the grill grates with a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil. Take the chicken out of the marinade and shake off the excess. You want the chicken coated, but not gloppy. Put the chicken pieces on the hot side of the grill and cover. Cook 2-3 minutes before checking.

5 Turn the chicken so it is brown (even a little bit charred) on all sides, then move it to the cool side of the grill. Cover and cook for at least 20 minutes, up to 40 minutes (or longer) depending on the size of the chicken and the temperature of the grill. The chicken is done when its juices run clear.

Let it rest for at least 5 minutes before serving. It’s also great at room temperature or even cold the next day.

Serve with naan, and Indian flatbread, or with Indian style rice, with yogurt-based riata on the side.

Serves 4-6.