Director Kathryn Bigelow has proven that she’s the only person capable of making a good fiction film about America’s most recent armed conflicts. Many fools have attempted the tricky feat of chronicling the so-called War on Terror (I’m looking at you, Robert Redford), but Bigelow is the only craftsman yet to do so with any degree of actual artistic success. Her last feature, the award-winning Indie drama The Hurt Locker, was the first film about the Iraq War that managed to capture its uniqueness and universality. Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow’s higher-profile follow-up to that distinguished sleeper, and besides its bigger budget, Zero Dark Thirty is also less of a white-knuckler and more of an expertly researched and assembled procedural. In dramatizing the decade-long manhunt for terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, Bigelow engrosses us in facts and particulars, detailing the mission with the exactitude of field reporting. In addition, Zero Dark Thirty uncovers something tragic: the empty thrill of revenge. Bigelow understands that Bid Laden’s assassination was at once victorious and distressingly insufficient, a fruitless attempt to recover our stolen security and innocence.
The story begins in the obvious place, with the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Bigelow wisely avoids flooding the viewer with iconic and disturbing imagery—burning towers, crashing planes, falling bodies—and instead keeps the screen completely black, an artistic choice that cannily dodges jejune exploitation. The horror is amplified, not by sights, but by sounds. Bigelow overwhelms us with a chaotic miscellany of panicked voices—air traffic controllers, news correspondents, emergency personnel, witnesses and victims—as they take us through that unforgettable day in a few haunting minutes. Since all the recordings are real, one in particular—of a woman pleading for help from feckless 911 operators as the Twin Towers incinerate around her—is especially heartbreaking. The terror and desperation are palpable; they just about suck the air from the theater, reminding viewers of how that day felt deep down in their guts. The aural montage is only the first in a two-and-a-half hour succession of magnificently constructed movements that emphasize realism and austerity over contrivance and easy sentiment. In fact, nothing about Zero Dark Thirty comes easily, not the characters’ formidable undertaking and not the audience’s acceptance of the unpleasant methods and consequences. The greatness of Bigelow’s film is that it tackles a difficult subject with the maturity and complexity it requires.
Once the screen awakens from that nightmare, we’re dropped at a CIA black-site in Pakistan two years on. An interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke) is probing information from a captured Al Qaeda operative. When the prisoner doesn’t cooperate with questioning, he’s strung up by his hands and feet, beaten, water-boarded, stuffed in a box, and dragged across the ground by a leash and choke-collar. The scene is terribly disconcerting, and when considering the emotionally devastating one that preceded it, it’s clear Bigelow is encouraging us to weigh the two acts of malice and ponder the latter’s supposed justification. We’re forced to witness the underground byproducts of 9/11, fuelled by the enraged national vendetta that may have smoked out potential threats, but did so in a way that left a barbaric legacy. Jason Clarke stands out in these early minutes as a proxy avenger, a messenger of pain who does what suits in Washington won’t, but clearly condone. Stretching out longer than normal for a Hollywood action-movie, the sequence feels like a (torture) chamber drama. Dan and his masked comrades work on one detainee for so long that the film begins to fetishize the very practice of interrogation, acknowledging not only its cruelty, but its tedium as well. With the repeated phrase, “When you lie, I hurt you”, Dan attempts to rationalize torture and displace guilt.
In these covert dungeons of persuasion, we first meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA wunderkind plucked from her high school to track down wanted adversaries. Given the monumental task of hunting the bearded mastermind, Maya relishes the opportunity and dives in headfirst. As the years tick by, however, and the chase stalls, her assignment morphs into an unhealthy obsession, blowing any speck of normalcy away like sand in the wind. The outstanding screenplay (written by ace reporter Mark Boal, who also penned The Hurt Locker) is structured like crime journalism. With elliptical temporal and geographical leaps, sub-headed segments, and taut storytelling, the film suggests expository writing made cinematic; it traces the key events of the actual mission with scrupulous attention—from the agents’ blind-alley pursuit to the inevitable assault by now-legendary Seal Team 6. While The Hurt Locker was a pure combat film, the spiritual kin of Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, Zero Dark Thirty fashions the search for Bin Laden into an investigative thriller, something like Zodiac or All The President’s Men. If the movie is long and episodic, it’s due to its dedication to patient processes, whittling out an uncompromising and sophisticated work of political non-fiction.
The trail of breadcrumbs leads Maya around the Middle East and beyond. She questions prisoners and pursues leads; collaborates with cohorts (Jennifer Ehle); battles superiors (Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong); and links up with the rough-and-tumble Navy Seals (led by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton). Eventually, though, Maya emerges as something of a tragic creature. Since her job isolates her from the real world, we can see how she loses any sense of moral balance or normality. Her co-worker asks her, “Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have any friends?”, and the answer is clear from her expression alone. As a character, Maya functions symbolically as well as narratively. Her single-minded fixation mirrors our own post-9/11 pursuit of closure and catharsis. The American people’s need to locate Bin Laden was less driven by vengeance than by an El Dorado-like quest for recuperated peace-of-mind. Chastain gives the performance of her young career as the green savant. Maya remains consistently saturnine, but Chastain communicates her character’s intricate thought patterns. Always working, connecting dots, and sorting puzzle pieces, her brain maneuvers like Mark Zuckerberg’s in The Social Network, nearly computerized in rapidity. The modern mind is constantly processing and problem solving. If Maya sounds like a robot, she’s really a possessed introvert with concentrated tunnel vision that indicates to us that as the search narrows, so does the world around her.
By the time the agent and her team find the fugitive hiding in plain sight—at a high-walled safe-house in Pakistan—we ponder what an offensive might actually accomplish. Even if Bin Laden were still somehow running Al Qaeda from buried inside his redoubt, another act of violence couldn’t possibly heal the trauma of the preceding ten years. Bigelow (whose resume includes the bank-robbery yarn Point Break) uses the climactic set piece—a stealthy midnight raid of the compound by U.S. forces—to showcase her gift for staging gripping action sequences. The attack comes to life with hairpin intensity. The result of the operation is not an enigma (I won’t spoil anything here, just in case some of you have been living under rocks for the past three years), but mystery is not Bigelow’s ultimate objective; she seeks to explore the effect on the people involved, and by way of them, the masses that initially cried for blood. As she did with The Hurt Locker, the director uses her story’s coda to marinate revealingly in her protagonist's complicated psychology. Like how Jeremy Renner’s reckless Sgt. James couldn’t bear the prospect of living an everyday life, Chastain’s Maya finds her own existence sadly without purpose. What’s left for her besides a lonely flight home, once the boiling rage is supplanted by melancholic numbness? As the credits rolled, I thought back to that petrified woman clinging to life as the World Trade Center collapsed from beneath her feet. Kathryn Bigelow’s remarkable Zero Dark Thirty confronts us with such a smoldering wreck, from which we have yet to fully emerge.