Post-9/11 America is a nation that can no longer count on the easy split between good and evil, morality and injustice. There are numerous divides, both in culture and our legislature, over how to deal with the smartest, most complex enemy we’ve ever encountered, specifically in the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, who was killed by SEAL Team 6 on May 1, 2011.
That manhunt is the focus of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the latest masterpiece from director Kathryne Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (both won Oscars for “The Hurt Locker”). Like that previous film there is no political spin in this story of Maya (a fantastic Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who becomes hellbent on finding the 9/11 mastermind, by any means necessary. Some of those means are rational, others find her reckoning with her own values of justice and compromise. This movie is an incredible achievement, electrified by the mix of drama and truth, a procedural that stands with “Zodiac” and “All The President’s Men” in its ability to turn a myriad of names, dates and minutia into a detective story that reflects its time.
We are reminded of what that time means in the film’s prologue: a black screen and samples of the 911 calls made before the Towers went down. Bigelow establishes the film’s means of storytelling in the sequence: we don’t need obvious imagery to get a visceral reaction. She trusts her audience to make their own decisions about what they are seeing (in an age where films try desperately to always be about what they’re about, this treatment is a Godsend). That trust continues when the movie jumps forward to 2003, when Maya, the CIA agent described as a “killer” by her colleagues in Washington is shipped out to the agency’s field office in Islamabad, where detainees are put through intense bouts of “enhanced interrogation”…by which I mean torture, by fellow agent Dan (Jason Clarke in a swaggering, scary turn). His ultimatum is simple for these suspected terrorists: “You lie to me, and I hurt you.”
A lot of ignorant, reactionary controversy has been stirred up over “Zero Dark Thirty” and it’s alleged condemnation/glorification of torture, and in my opinion, Bigelow is not interested in making an obvious statement about torture. Again, she trusts here audience to accept these atrocities on their own terms, ready to question their own thoughts on the subject. Maya is an extension of that conflict, which will define this entire film. She’s clearly disturbed by these actions, but her desire to find Osama Bin Laden is absolute. How do you reconcile finding a man who committed a staggering atrocity with the “by any means necessary” attitude used by the CIA at the time?
“Zero Dark Thrity”‘s 157 tense minutes are spent trying to answer that question, with thrilling results. As Maya goes after leads and tries to dodge red herrings and assassination attempts, she meets characters high and low with a plethora of great character actors making indelible impressions: James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler as Maya’s Ben Bradley-esque superior, Edgar Ramirez, Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s partner/only friend, Mark Strong as a bull-headed bureaucrat, and many others play their part in this complex investigation, which for nearly 10 years is kept from the cold case files by Maya.
Boal’s script, which benefited from some controversial access to secret files in the Pentagon and CIA, is a marvel of pacing, and dexterity, somehow being expansive while keeping remnants of a fascinating character study of Maya. This may sound strange, but “Zero Dark Thirty” is a movie that young girls should see to get a taste of the tenacity of this character. We see her evolve in subtle increments, as the Bin Laden case wears at her soul. Maya is also fighting a two-front war: one is external, as she tries to prove herself among the lion’s den of alpha males that surround her in the CIA; the other is more internal, as she measures the cost of finding this man. Torture is an unethical quagmire; any relationships she has with her co-workers becomes frayed or ends tragically (kudos to this movie for not saddling her with a boyfriend or husband that repeats everything the script has already told us about her situation), and she becomes this hunt. Bigelow, who has faced similar strife in her career of directing movies in genres fueled by testosterone, obviously sees Maya as a kindred spirit. Chastain is nothing short of extraordinary, turning Maya into an action hero without ever needing to fire a gun; her weapon of choice is her determination, making the men who surround her who dare to question her pursuit of Bin Laden feel thoroughly emasculated upon doing so.
Bigelow, whose career was on life support until she came back with the incendiary “Hurt Locker,” tops even that triumph; she is nothing short of a virtuoso, effortlessly painting this chase across a decade-long canvass, culminating in the almost impossibly tense siege of Bin Laden’s final hiding place by the SEALs. Bigelow’s camera darts all over the CIA offices and the night-vision-lit corridors with the confidence of a master (mistress?) filmmaker. Maya’s triumph at the end is also hers; she and Boal have become the foremost chroniclers of the 21st-century, terror-induced haze of American process, whether it be militaristic or governmental.
But nothing in “Zero Dark Thirty” comes easy. Not the information, not the location of Bin Laden, not the planning of the siege and especially not the final reckoning Maya faces once the mission that has defined her existence is complete. The final two shots are very simple, but the questions they ask will echo through history. It’s in this moments we realize that it’s not just Osama Bin Laden’s corpse that’s ridden with bullets; it’s Maya’s conscience as well. “Zero Dark Thirty,” along with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” are the two greatest cinematic achievements of 2012, because they come from two of the best filmmakers on Earth, who aren’t afraid to push their stories into places that make people think long and deeply. A movie that salutes the hard work to find one of our greatest adversaries while at the same time looking at the damage that we inflicted on ourselves in the process? Now THAT is heroism.