I guess it’s better late than never that everybody in the press finally decided to have the outraged conversation about torture that should have happened 10 years ago—you know, back when we were torturing people. A lot of the ink spilled on the subject of advanced interrogation techniques and their place in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has indeed been asinine, but the discussion also serves to underscore what’s so remarkable about this film and its presentation of recent events: There is no hand-holding here, no pat speeches summing up what the movie is trying to say. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal don’t tell you how to feel about what happened; they simply present the facts, or at least as close as they’re able to approximate. The end result functions sort of like a viewer Rorschach test. Adults are expected to watch the film and draw their own conclusions, while politicians and polemicists are incapable of adult behavior—and often make lousy film critics anyway.
Based on eyewitness accounts given to journalist-turned-screenwriter Boal, the movie telescopes the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden into a gripping procedural on the order of Zodiac or All the President’s Men. Zero Dark Thirty is first and foremost a phenomenal white-knuckle thriller, a precision-tooled two-hour-and-40-minute machine that left me breathless both times I saw it. Hell of a thing to be on the edge of your seat through an entire movie when everybody in the world already knows the ending.
Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a rookie CIA agent described by Washington as “a killer.” She’s got no relationships or even any discernible interests outside of the job, and over the course of these 10 very long and confounding years, her obsession with tracking down and killing bin Laden becomes all-consuming. Chastain was an off-kilter yet brilliant casting choice, her naturally willowy and ethereal demeanor hardening into steel as the investigation grinds on. After 30 years in Hollywood, Bigelow knows a thing or two about being a beautiful woman working in a man’s world, baby. And offhand, institutionalized sexism is always lurking just beneath the surface, without anyone ever making a big deal about it.
That same matter-of-factness is employed across the board, and the approach gives Zero Dark Thirty such a gripping sense of verisimilitude. Those controversial interrogation sequences—which are limited to the film’s first half-hour, yet cast a sickening pall over everything that follows—are flattened out, devoid of sensationalism. Jason Clarke, the Australian actor who made no impression whatsoever co-starring with Chastain in last year’s Lawless, dominates Zero Dark Thirty’s early chapters, hulking over the detainees, calmly and quietly explaining that they’ll eventually break: “Everybody does. It’s biology, bro.”
Of course, had torture actually led to the location of Osama bin Laden, this movie would be at least 90 minutes shorter, and instead, we follow the increasingly single-minded Maya as she tirelessly digs around for a needle in a region full of haystacks. Administrations change, priorities are re-assigned, and Clarke’s detective strategies shift from waterboarding to bribery with Lamborghinis. Surveillance techniques evolve from analog to digital, climaxing in an improbably thrilling attempt to track a cell phone signal in a mobbed Pakistani marketplace.
Bigelow’s command of the medium is astonishing. Zero Dark Thirty’s scenes are short, pungent and convey exactly enough information to propel us into the next. A bustling ensemble cast enters and exits at regular intervals, making brief but indelible impressions. Special kudos to Jennifer Ehle, offering a stray beacon of human warmth, and James Gandolfini as amusingly beleaguered CIA chief Leon Panetta.
Capturing Seal Team Six’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad might be the trickiest maneuver of Bigelow’s career. We know exactly how this is going to play out, and yet it’s a wringer of a suspense sequence all the same. Filmed almost in real time—which is nerve-wrackingly slow for viewers weaned on action pictures—the operation unfolds without music, all deathly quiet and eerie green night vision, punctuated by sparse muzzle flashes and tactical professionalism. Bin Laden’s killing barely registers onscreen. There’s nothing triumphant here when the dragon is slain, no “America, Fuck Yeah!” flag-waving to be found.
Instead, the final moments of Zero Dark Thirty—a wordless expression by Chastain that speaks volumes while saying nothing at all—have haunted me for weeks. Technically, we might have “won,” but you’ll leave the theater thinking about everything that’s been lost.