Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s suddenly-infamous film about the death of Bin Laden, doesn’t provide the typical Hollywood pleasures that a true-life procedural would. Our hero, played by Jessica Chastain, is largely unsympathetic: she has no loving husband and adorable children, she has no “save the cat” moments. Our narrative, sculpted by writer Mark Boal, is unconventional: unlike this year’s Argo, which travels in a straight line from start to finish, this film weaves all over the map at a variety of speeds and tones. Until the “raid” sequence at the end, it’s a series of attempts and misses to capitalize on or even to obtain information. Yet the tension is unrelenting, even as the Bin Laden mission plods hopelessly forward for our hero over many years. There’s a moral ambiguity laced throughout, keeping Zero Dark Thirty in your brain longer than most standard thrillers. It’s not difficult to see why the government is upset, but it’s also not difficult to see why critics have generally been elated: it’s a brainy unconventional genre piece.
Maya (Jessica Chastain) spends her first day on assignment with the CIA witnessing a waterboarding. Dan (Jason Clarke) is attempting to get information out of a detainee who was caught with his fingerprints on Al Qaeda money. They want anything that will lead them to Osama Bin Laden. While they struggle to find any pertinent intelligent, Maya gets acclimated to the procedure and gradually becomes obsessed with this search. The harder it becomes to find him, and the more the CIA loses as the hunt struggles, the steelier her resolve becomes. Once they believe they’ve found his compound (only a spoiler if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last half a decade), the government acts overly cautious, afraid of error– and this is where the film switches into its highest gear. Maya is not afraid of anything other than letting Bin Laden slip through her fingers. Other CIA officials (Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler) don’t know what to make of her. We do: she’s the most focused, most educated, and savviest person on the case.
Zero Dark Thirty’s greatest success is the subtlety with which it reveals the institutional sexism. A brief exchange between Gandolfini and his aide is brilliantly succinct: the aide says, “I think she’s smart,” to which Gandolfini pointedly replies, “We’re all smart.” Boal fills the script with these sharp moments, and Bigelow lingers on little glares and pauses from the male authority figures. The “issue” of torture that seems to be the hot-button topic is a non-issue: regardless of whether this film dramatizes events, the CIA has employed torture in the past to gather intelligence. The film neither advocates nor condemns– it reports. Even the end raid is devoid of flag-waving and celebrating. The only section of the film that seems disappointingly like propaganda is the opening, with its tasteless use of 9/11 audio. The film didn’t need to remind us of what Bin Laden did nor rub our noses in it… but it’s the film’s only notable misstep. The performances are strong across the board, but Chastain in particular continues her journey as one of the most diverse and talented young actresses alive. Maya has none of the ethereal dreaminess of Tree of Life, nor the bubbliness of The Help, nor the sultry tone of Lawless. She is driven and endlessly strong. Moral ambiguity and charmless lead actresses aren’t exactly crowd pleasers, but Zero Dark Thirty has more meat on its bones than your average film. It keeps you on the edge of your seat while keeping your brain’s gears cranking. It’s notably subtler and smarter than Bigelow and Boal’s last film, The Hurt Locker, and it should be essential viewing for any American regarding how the war on terror looks and feels, for better AND for worse.