Kathryn Bigelow has directed excellent movies before, but Zero Dark Thirty deserves to be remembered as the film that established her as a master, worthy of inclusion in the ranks of the great filmmakers. Zero Dark Thirty runs two hours and thirty-seven minutes, and there is not one inessential moment in it, not one inelegant shot. It goes forward at a steady, easy pace, trusting us to keep up, spanning eight years of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden without losing a step. It also spends roughly its first hour focusing on squalid failure — the efforts on the CIA’s part to torture information out of detainees. The torture doesn’t work; it doesn’t lead to any intel that stops numerous subsequent attacks or that leads to bin Laden. People who claim the movie is pro-torture must have wandered into a different theater, or gone into the film determined to find justifications where there are none. In the actual film that I saw, the CIA gets nowhere until they stop torturing detainees.
But enough of that. The movie, written by Mark Boal (Bigelow’s collaborator on The Hurt Locker) based on his interviews with many figures involved in the manhunt, is structured almost like a police procedural: We know whodunit, but how can we find him? A lot of the film is talking heads in offices, but Bigelow keeps the scenes tight and urgent. The protagonist, the fictionalized Maya (Jessica Chastain), has worked for the CIA since the ink was barely dry on her high-school diploma. Bin Laden becomes her white whale, though we’re given no evidence of any personal injury done to her by al-Qaeda; we also avoid the usual dull scenes where Maya has to balance her job and some relationship. She is defined entirely by her obsession, her determination, and her intelligence. Maya appears before us as the sort of literary blank slate we can project ourselves onto. We share her frustration; we share her revulsion at the torture performed by her CIA associate (Jason Clarke), who otherwise seems an amiable sort (he eventually opts for a desk job, yearning for something “normal”).
Other than some truly shocking moments of terrorism here and there, and the nail-biting raid on bin Laden’s compound, Zero Dark Thirty is not an action film, yet Bigelow and Boal let their characters reveal themselves through action, or action not taken, or action expressed as decision. Maya herself is not going to the Abbottabad compound to plug bin Laden in the head personally, but sending Navy SEALs in to take him out is still her responsibility (“Bin Laden is there,” she tells one of the soldiers, “and you’re going to kill him for me”). There’s a great deal of strategy, digital espionage, even bribery. Like Zodiac, the movie feels like a thick book packed with fascinating data and anecdotes, though getting too hung up on what’s literally true on the screen is pointless. It’s still a movie.
Maya is a tough cookie, but by casting the pale, red-haired, rather fragile-looking Jessica Chastain, Bigelow makes the unstressed point that not all strong women are built like Lucy Lawless; they come in deceptively frail packages, too, and Chastain seems almost recessive at times, but then, at a moment of high frustration, her Maya lets fly with a volley of vituperation at a stonewalling higher-up. She may look waifish but you don’t want to get in her way. The men around her, and some of the women, are nonplussed by Maya’s absolute certainty that she’s right. Unlike the male bureaucrats surrounding her, she doesn’t worry about covering her ass. She’s a hero, but Bigelow and Chastain also establish that Maya’s very certainty in this murky moral universe is a little inhuman. Battle not with monsters, as they say.
Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t stand to the side and say “Torture is bad.” It assumes we know that, and it suggests that even if torture worked perfectly it would — or should — still weigh heavily on the American soul. In the climactic raid, we see men and women, bin Laden’s accomplices in hiding him — willingly or unwillingly, who can say? — shot down in front of their shrieking children. It’s ugly stuff, and those who want to see bin Laden ventilated in full gory Django Unchained retributive glory will be disappointed — it happens mainly offscreen. A key theme in Bigelow’s work has always been the ambiguities attached to violence and the mechanisms, psychological or artificial, people use to distance themselves from the hurt they’re causing. In that respect, Zero Dark Thirty feels like Bigelow’s magnum opus, the big one she’s been working towards for the last three decades. It links nicely with her previous films, like Hurt Locker, of course, but also the dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days and even Blue Steel, a cop movie about a woman trying to bring a psychopath to justice. Here she has delivered an epic that is thoughtful but isn’t sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought; it is robust, physically exact — it hums with the special electricity of smart people doing what they do best, although doing their best often leads to failure anyway. Not in Bigelow’s case, though.