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The critical baggage attached to director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has established the film as a “motion picture event,” something people go see because it’s the done thing. That’s good for business (not to mention a testament to Bigelow’s Hollywood clout) but also rather troubling. A stump speech, a ribbon-cutting, the birthday party of a distant cousin—-these are all “events,” ones we attend out of a sense of social obligation. So, please, don’t go see Zero Dark solely on account of its buzziness, and don’t stay away because you’ve heard it condones torture. Go because it’s a good, near-great film, and stay away only if The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s 2009 Oscar-hoover, represents the upper limit of your appetite for ground-war filmmaking.
Zero Dark Thirty follows U.S. intelligence operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) on her 10-year quest to hunt down Osama bin Laden—a quest hampered by naysaying superiors, dubious intel, and Al-Qaeda’s own redoubtable tradecraft. There’s a choppiness to the film that mimics Maya’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back drudge of a hunting expedition, but the ellipses that punctuate the film’s various chapters lend it a breathless quality, one reinforced by Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist score. At 157 minutes, the film is taxing, but moves far quicker than 10 uneventful years have any right to do.
Chastain portrays Maya’s evolving Bin Laden obsession with a reticent virtuosity: On her first C.I.A. “black site” visit, during which she witnesses her first of many “enhanced” interrogations, Maya hides—just barely—her greenness, while Dan (Jason Clarke), the interrogator, gently suggests that “there’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor.” Before long, Maya hardens to her task, never truly accepting the George W. Bush-sanctioned torture of detainees but never quite protesting it, either. Because Maya represents the film’s conscience as well as its point of focalization, her perspective draws the audience into the old, agonizing negotiation between ideals and practicalities. Here is where the more vocal antitorture advocates draw the line, condemning the film and its director for “torture-apology.” But Chastain’s Maya is too smart and sensitive ever to fall for the substance of the Bush memos, and the film remains deceptively mum on just how much useful intel emerged from confinement boxes and waterboarding sessions. Chastain projects grittiness-as-affect; Maya’s C.I.A. job, after all, is its own sort of performance, and Chastain is mesmerizing to watch as she and her character navigate the murk of the proceedings.
If Chastain’s quiet, understated performance leaves plenty of room for the Michael Moores of the world to chastise the film (often before seeing it), the über-professional balance of her acting is also the film’s main asset. The supporting cast does yeoman’s work and includes fine turns from Kyle Chandler as the C.I.A.’s bureau chief in Islamabad and Chris Pratt (famous for his pratfalls in Parks and Recreation) as a Navy SEAL who ends up storming Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound at half-past-midnight, the military term for which lends the film its name. The siege sequence is a tour de force, one that grips even though we all sort of know how Operation Neptune Spear will end. This final act, photographed in eerie, starkly realist night-vision, terrifies, repulses, and exhilarates in equal measure. Screenwriter Mark Boal, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar for The Hurt Locker, reported the film with a diligence that has raised hackles in the upper echelons of the intelligence community; the result is a feature film whose apparent proximity to documentary is just as unsettling as it should be.
At one point, Maya’s colleague Jessica (the inimitable Jennifer Ehle) asks her, “Do you have any friends?” Chastain’s wordless hesitance speaks volumes, and she seems almost relieved when the bombing of the Islamabad Marriot saves her from having to answer. That the question could have been directed at the United States is an interesting consideration, one that floats in the slow-clearing dust from the hotel bombing. We once expected Big Directors to address the Big Questions—-and we should not take it for granted that Bigelow is willing and abundantly able to do so.