Jessica Chastain’s (centre) Maya powerfully depicts America’s damaged post-9/11 soul.
ZERO DARK THIRTY directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal, with Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Joel Edgerton. An Alliance Films release. 157 minutes. Opens Friday (January 11). See times. Rating: NNNNN
Zero Dark Thirty compresses the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden into two hours and 57 minutes of crisp, urgent cinema. It's a movie that grabs you from the first frames, takes you to some extremely ugly places and asks you how you feel about what you're seeing.
Chasing the midpoint between journalism and drama, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal - who first examined America's wartime state of mind in 2009's The Hurt Locker - have crafted a thriller that manages to sustain tension over a long, complex narrative and still feel suspenseful and nervy even when the outcome is a matter of world history.
They've done this by building their master narrative around a single CIA analyst named Maya who's present at most key points in the search for bin Laden. As Maya, Jessica Chastain rises effortlessly to the challenge of representing America's damaged post-9/11 soul - and also puts a great deal of distance between her driven, confident intelligence expert and the Cassandra-like character played by Claire Danes on Homeland.
Maya's quest intersects with dozens of other characters, giving Bigelow and Boal a dramatic focal point for the torrents of information they throw at us. The first two hours of Zero Dark Thirty send Maya and her team pinballing through the Middle East looking for scraps of intelligence in overlooked files and mistranslated conversations. Theirs is a world of bad intel and poisoned leads, where mistakes can have awful consequences... and we know when they're on the wrong trail.
Finally, though, the information falls just right and Bigelow unleashes a climactic 30-minute sequence recreating the U.S. raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. But even here she avoids any big rah-rah moments. There's no musical score to tell us how to feel; instead, a cloud of confusion surrounds the narrative's big payoff. In the quiet, murky moments afterwards, Zero Dark Thirty transcends true-life drama and invites us into the headspace of people who've participated in changing the world. Turns out it's a lot more complicated, and much uglier, than we'd like to believe.
Ignore the bullshit idea that Zero Dark Thirty somehow endorses torture. It's true that Bigelow and Boal don't shy away from showing CIA operatives torturing detainees (company policy at the time, you may recall), but depiction doesn't constitute endorsement.
See the movie for yourself, consider what else is happening in the frame, and then decide what Bigelow and Boal are saying.