Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a taut, tough, tart film that brims with tension and suspense. Promoting it as a thriller has been a bold move, considering we all know the conclusion. But the movie does thrill, because few are familiar with the ins and outs of the ten-year manhunt for al-Qaeda’s leader in this much detail.
Penned by Mark Boal, the reporter-turned-screenwriter who won an Academy Award for Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, the movie is a seamless weave of truth (allegedly based on “first-hand accounts of actual events”) and drama that hews closely to real-life but takes some poetic license. Much of the fascination of watching it comes from the gradual unveiling of facts, the meticulous and comprehensive chronicling of every step forward, every setback, dead-end and disappointment on the long, slow, arduous road to bin Laden’s capture on May 2, 2011 at zero dark thirty (military-speak for half past midnight).
More than anything else, the film celebrates process, professionalism, and the perfect mix of deduction, intuition, supposition, screaming matches, and luck main character Maya (the versatile, ubiquitous, incredible Jessica Chastain) uses. Like Spielberg’s Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty takes us behind the scenes of one of the most important events in American history, showcasing the messy, ethically complicated, strenuous means by which progress is oftentimes achieved.
Whereas the mindless violence in a movie like Django Unchained is wildly over-the-top, hilarious, and entertaining, here the brutality is realistic, ugly, stark, almost businesslike, which makes it that more horrifying. The detailed torture techniques—including waterboarding, extreme stress positions, sleep deprivation, and, in a later scene, sexual humiliation and confinement in a frighteningly small box—clearly makes C.I.A. operative Maya uncomfortable on her first day in Pakistan. She is tense, even turning away and covering her face. In a few more years she will become as skilled and effective at this kind of cruelty as her cowboy partner Dan (a formidable, scary Jason Clarke). It’s a job, like any other. But management is changing, bringing along a whole new set of rules; “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” Dan warns Maya.
Despite the hefty controversy Zero Dark Thirty has spurred, the film by no means promotes torture as an acceptable means of garnering information. Old-fashioned detective work, deception, misdirection, bluffing, and bribery were, the movie argues, more effective than strong-arming tactics in gaining viable intel.
The relentless Maya battles false leads and false hope in her search for a needle in a haystack, which, she insists, is not in a cave somewhere, but hiding in plain sight in a large, sealed-off Pakistani compound. “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I'm going to kill bin Laden,” she vows and, in the end, succeeds. The game of discovery Maya engages in at times resembles a chess game against an opponent using invisible pieces that don’t move from square to square according to any rules you’re familiar with.
At 156 minutes, the film emulates the seemingly infinite stretch of time between the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent result. Like David Fincher’s brilliant Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty makes you feel firsthand how weeks can turn into months and years. Keeping track, in dry-erase marker, of the bureaucratic delays, the screech of writing on glass (on her boss’s office door) might be akin to the noise that fills Maya’s head in anticipation.
Whereas The Hurt Locker is an exercise in suspense, Zero Dark Thirty is more visceral, immersive, and action-driven, capturing the kind of filmmaking we have come to expect from Bigelow. But the director is as adept with emotion as she is action, and her helming is unexpectedly stunning, at once bold and intimate, infusing even large-scale action sequences with a tender human element.
The biggest and most thrilling set piece, of the raid that led to bin Laden’s death, is masterfully executed. Cinematographer Greig Fraser employs a shaky handheld camera, staging the scene in real-time, in a world of darkness, half-shadow, and confusion. This is the authentic environment this sort of acts takes place in, only heightened by the introduction of many shots through the sickly, weirdly unreal green haze of night-vision goggles.
Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain holds the screen and the viewers in the kind of rapt fascination Maya holds her colleagues and supervisors in during boardroom meetings. When asked by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (James Gandolfini) who she is, the seemingly delicate “girl” replies without blinking: “I’m the motherfucker who found this place. Sir.” Maya provides a face to an often faceless organization, although we know nothing about her personal life (no family history or romantic connections to speak of) or what drives her professional one. Our sense of her emerges slowly by way of Chastain’s elegantly steely performance. The character is drained and toughened by her job, and Chastain’s beautiful oversized features seem to harden before our eyes.
All the supporting roles are filled by strong character actors with a commanding screen presence. Jennifer Ehle plays a fellow agent who sets up an ill-fated sting operation with an al-Qaeda informant; Mark Strong is memorable as a mercurial C.I.A. official; Stephen Dillane has a few juicy lines as a White House security adviser; and Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton are just two of the brave Navy SEALs who raided the austere compound in Abbottabad where bin Laden was hiding.
The film’s message has nothing to do with policy or terrorism. It’s summed up nicely by one of the characters as “here’s to the big breaks, and the little people that make ’em happen.” A workplace drama that unfolds mostly in offices and in front of computer screens, Zero Dark Thirty is beautifully apolitical. The movie adds up to an excellent C.I.A. procedural about how unrelenting determination, perseverance, and resolve can yield results. Bigelow understands that, and her mix of conscientious research and cautious fiction make for a glowing, riveting accomplishment. Zero Dark Thirty is as single-minded and emotionally distant as its character, and its achievements are just as remarkable. “It’s her against the world,” someone says about Maya at some point, and the same can be said about Bigelow, who, as the first woman to ever win a directing Oscar, has become something of a real-life, modern-day heroine.
The director takes no sides, letting us decide if the death of bin Laden was worth the price we paid, and ends on a note of reserved ambivalence. “Where do you want to go?” someone asks Maya in the film’s pointedly anti-climactic final scene. Silence is all that follows, in a close-up which Chastain holds with haunting pain and subtlety. Zero Dark Thirty poses difficult questions without offering easy answers. Where are we going?