There's so much that Kathryn Bigelow has to say in Zero Dark Thirty that it's hilarious so many are upset over the mere perception she and screenwriter Mark Boal are glorifying the use of torture. Seriously? It can only be that these people have not seen the movie, because anyone who had couldn't make it through those first 20 minutes of the film and say "Oh yeah, we need to be doing more of that". Enhanced interrogation is very much a part of Bigelow's frighteningly visceral and intense examination of our response after 9/11, and as such she establishes very early on that this is going to be a very different movie from her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker.
Beginning fittingly with the horrific sounds of the World Trade Center attacks, cloaked in complete darkness, what follows is the systematic fleecing of a country's soul captured on film. More than lives were lost on that fateful day; America lost its sense of what made us great, and in its place came an unyielding thirst for justice that led us to some bleak corners where the means were justified even if the ends were never in sight. Jessica Chastain embodies our dogged quest for retribution as Maya, a young CIA Intelligence agent who we first meet in Pakistan two years after 9/11. Upon seeing her, this thin waif of a woman, she seems an ill-fitting choice to shoulder the weight of the country's war against terror. Indeed, when expert torturer Dan (played brilliantly by Jason Clarke) sees her, his immediate thought is that she's not meant for this, but she's more than up for it. Even as he enthusiastically breaks down a terror suspect on a physical and emotionally degrading level, she's there watching. Never judging. She's our eyes and ears, the one who takes on the ugly job of making sure those who hurt America pay the price. If that means getting some of the mud on herself then so be it.
Maya is perhaps the perfect character to walk us through Bigelow's film, which takes an apolitical look at a very political issue. We know next to nothing about her, but her determination and ferocity are legendary. She seems to have no personal life whatsoever, few friends or hobbies, her single-minded focus solely on Bin Laden's capture. Maya is apparently based on a real life woman, who has taken some issue with the depiction. How accurate the portrayal doesn't really matter. We can argue it to death without an answer. Nor does it matter how accurate the fine details of the ten-year manhunt are. What matters is that Bigelow captures the ever-shifting perspectives of the Intelligence community perfectly. Administrations come and go, the ebb and tide of popular support has an immediate and lasting impact on their methodology. Bigelow creates suspense and urgency out of a story we already know the conclusion to, filling in the blanks with what we think we know. Surely dramatic license had to be taken at some point, this isn't a biography on The History Channel or anything, but you'll be hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly where. Everything is so authentic, so detail oriented that it's scary.
Chastain may come off as a little stiff, but it's a necessary quality to show the walls Maya has put up to hide the weariness inflicted by her mission. We learn about Maya from the way others react to her, from the government bureaucrats who both admire and hate her doggedness, to the few relationships she forges along the way. Jennifer Ehle is excellent as an agent, no less determined than Maya, who lets her personal and professional ambitions cloud her judgments. Bigelow stocks the film with a wonderful assortment of A-listers for what amount to expanded cameos, from Kyle Chandler, to Joel Edgerton, to James Gandolfini, although it's Clarke who truly stands out as Chastain's true equal.
Much of the film is presented as a type of global crime procedural, where data and information are mulled over and analyzed, plans put into effect which either succeed or fail spectacularly. This may not sound all that exciting, but it’s the urgency of it all that keeps you on the edge of the seat. We're there with Maya through it all; see how the many losses and the frustrations have taxed her, so that we are just as invested as she by the end. The final hour may put Maya into the background a little bit, as the SEAL Team finally begins their raid on Bin Laden's compound at 12:30(hence the title 'Zero Dark Thirty'), but she's never far out of mind. When she prompts the squad leader, to kill Bin Laden for her, we're right there with her regardless of our thoughts on corporal punishment. We want to see all of that sacrifice validated once and for all. It only helps that the actual raid, seen mostly through night vision goggles, is a gripping, white-knuckle experience considerably less "Hollywood" than Act of Valor was with its Navy SEAL cast.
It's probably impossible for Bigelow to go back to making small, meaningless movies. Sorry, Point Break fans. Zero Dark Thirty isn't just an important film, but it will spark endless amounts of conversation that ensures we'll be feeling its impact for years to come.