Message from Zero Dark Thirty: don’t mess with the chicks. Osama bin Laden did, and look what happened to him. Director Kathryn Bigelow centers what the ads call “the greatest manhunt in history” down to a single focused CIA agent, with nothing but time and a growing vendetta on her hands. The accuracy becomes less important than the clinical, detached way she unfurls this woman’s quest to bring a monster to justice.
It’s quite effective not only for the detail, but for the moral ambiguity that once again lends suspense and tension to a historically mandated outcome. We know what happens at the end; it’s the journey that holds us. It doesn’t arrive without controversy, notably in its depiction of torture which pundits and politicians alike are already foaming at the mouth about. Like she did in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow refrains from sermonizing. She simply shows us what happened and asks us to make our own decisions. The first twenty minutes of the film consists largely of a man in a room, arms spread by nylon ropes and subjected to the tender ministrations of a Company torturer (Jason Clarke) who really seems to know what he’s doing.
The brutality of the sequence comes as no surprise. The surprise is that this particular individual 1) has it coming and 2) provides actionable information as a result. Pundits have taken this as a sign that Zero Dark Thirty condones torture. It doesn’t. It merely depicts torture in a way that leads to discussion rather than preaching at us from one direction or another. That actionable intel still doesn’t nab them a bad guy, and focused on one target alone. It’s eight long years – far after waterboarding has been repudiated – before we see whether it was worth it or not. Could things have moved more quickly if we kept torturing people? Or was it just a wasted effort besmirching our national reputation? You could easily read it both ways, and Bigelow allows us to draw our own conclusions, rather than preaching to us about hers.
Among the witnesses to this early action is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a pale quiet woman whose eyes hide devotion almost as fanatical as the prey she hunts. Her bosses chide her for not following up other options – like preventing the next attack – but in a sense, she’s a beast of their own creation. She’s brilliant, she has no friends beyond those at work, and as the days and weeks slowly turn into months and years, her fervor at putting a bullet in bin Laden’s head becomes more than anyone can deny. You’re not likely to find another female character in an espionage film as capable, astute and downright scary as this one (I’m going with Chastain as an early favorite for the Best Actress Oscar); I suspect we have the woman behind the camera to thank for it.
The remainder of the film adopts a very matter-of-fact tone, charting out each step in the chase with simple title cards and dates, then plunging headlong into the fascinating methodology of finding someone who really, really, really does not want to be found. Bigelow is keenly aware of the potential for exploitation and avoids it with the confidence of a seasoned professional. (The opening sequence depicts the events of September 11 solely through audio recordings against a black screen.) We’re left with a serious movie about a serious topic, a film unafraid to lose us if we can’t keep up and respectful enough to let us make up our own minds about what we’ve seen.
For a time, it looked like Zero Dark Thirty would contend for the best movie of the year. Unfortunately, it loses its sense of purpose a bit in the final third, and while we’re never bored, it feels like they needed to get down to business about twenty minutes sooner than they do. The final raid is a revelation: messy, ugly and achieves its purpose with surprising casualness... which is likely how the real thing went down. It snaps Zero Dark Thirty back into the stratosphere after the late-inning malaise threatened to linger. Even with that minor flaw, it’s still an impressive package: not quite as stunning as Bigelow’s justly celebrated The Hurt Locker, but a firm reminder that film can still engage us on relevant subjects. “Engage,” but never lecture, a knack which Bigelow possesses in spades, and which benefits not only this movie but everyone who sits down to watch it.