There are very few people, inside or out of the United States, unaware that on May 1, 2011, an elite team of Navy SEALs stormed a compound in Pakistan under cover of darkness, and the mission resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes not only that raid, but broadly covers the ten year hunt for Al Qaeda's leader and the war on terror. It functions as both documentary and thriller, and does both very well.
The story spans the ten years between 9/11 and the raid in Abbottabad and centers on CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), who spends the bulk of the movie attempting to track down Abu Ahmed, a man that may be bin Laden's most trusted courier. Working out of the American embassy in Pakistan, she spends eight years following clues, interrogating terror suspects, chasing leads that often go nowhere, and butting heads with supervisors and bureaucrats who don't subscribe to her pipe dream theories. Eventually, of course, her hard work and intuition pay off, and the movie climaxes with the fateful assault on bin Laden's compound.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are clinical in their attention to detail, both in the broader historical strokes and the minutiae of the lives of the agents. The filmmakers approach the story as if they are making a documentary, both stylistically and structurally. They take liberties with certain details, particularly in the character of Maya; she is actually a composite of a number of agents. This is a perfectly legitimate choice, as it focuses the empathy of the audience onto one character. This is vital in a movie that spans a decade and follows a large cast of characters.
Controversy already surrounds Zero Dark Thirty; lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have tried to score political points by either attacking the film as too liberal or for glorifying torture as a necessary tool in the war on terror. What is impressive about the film and what these political opportunists fail to grasp (I imagine most of them haven't even seen the movie) is that the film does not provide a biased viewpoint. It is neither liberal or conservative. If the movie adopts a perspective, it is that of the CIA agents and soldiers on the ground. They are not demonized or canonized as heroes, but as hardworking professionals doing the best they can.
The supporting cast are all superb, including Jason Clarke as CIA agent Dan, and Kyle Chandler as the Islamabad station chief Joseph Bradley. The movie belongs to Jessica Chastain, who might manage to pull off an Oscar win for best actress. Maya is dogged and relentless, an agent whose obsessive focus has as good a chance of getting her killed as leading her to bin Laden. Chastain manages to convey strength and vulnerability in equal measure. The movie hinges on her ability to elicit empathy from the audience, and her success is a tribute to both actress and director.
Zero Dark Thirty is almost relentlessly thrilling. The movie focuses on seminal moments in the war on terror, and incidents that were historically familiar to me were nonetheless imbued with such tension that it was if I had no idea. The final thirty minutes, in which the SEALs storm the compound in Abbottabad, is one of the most intense sequences in recent movies, and belongs in the pantheon of great action scenes. Kathryn Bigelow proves again, as she did with The Hurt Locker, that she is one of our most vital filmmakers. She's come a long way since Point Break.