Kathryn Bigelow's angular thriller Zero Dark Thirty begins and ends with events that have been seared into public memory — the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, two incidents that bookended a decade in which America's sense of security and place in the world were radically shaken.
The film presents the story of what happened in that dark space between. Using a combination of whatever details screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal could turn up in his research and cautious fiction, Zero Dark Thirty details how the U.S. was finally able to track down and kill the elusive head of the organization responsible for the worst terrorist attack on our soil.
But at almost two and a half hours long — an epic running time that never seems excessive but makes you feel the stretch of the years being chronicled — the film also teases your attention away from those known events, and brings it to the gritty, exhausting and sometimes ugly work being done on the ground and the type of people who engage in it.
It's a curious thing that two of the awards season's most significant films are stealthy procedurals: Lincoln, which beneath the surface gloss of a prestige biopic is a vivid showcase of the messy, difficult means by which the amendment to outlaw slavery was passed, and Zero Dark Thirty, which is an examination of how contemporary warfare has so much more to do with information than with sending troops out into battle. Both reveal the strenuous, time-consuming and ethically complicated efforts behind their well-known achievements.
While Steven Spielberg's film uses these exertions to bring animation, prickliness and warmth to characters that could have been wax-museum distant, Bigelow's consciously holds its emotions at arm's length, where they'll be less likely to interfere with the work being done. Such is the choice made by its heroine, known only by her first name, Maya, and played by Jessica Chastain as a crisply dedicated but green CIA analyst with few other interests in her life other than tracking down bin Laden — a target she comes to fixate on as she builds experience and confidence.
Zero Dark Thirty plays out in the shrouded and unpretty backstage of the War on Terror: embassy cubicles, dusty military camps and black sites where detainees undergo "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the film does not soften. Maya arrives fresh from D.C. to witness a prisoner being worked on by Dan (Jason Clarke, slipping easily from sardonic to savage). Sleep deprivation, waterboarding, confinement boxes and beatings — Maya doesn't take easily to these techniques but doesn't shrink from them either. Soon she's ordering them herself as she searches for information about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, rumored top al-Qaeda courier and the man she thinks is key to finding bin Laden.
The early fuss by Obama opponents who claimed the film (originally slated for an October release) would be a propagandizing election tool is laughable in context. The story starts long before Obama's arrival on the presidential stage, and his on-screen presence in a single scene, in which Maya and her colleagues watch his televised speech about America not engaging in torture, is representative, in a wincingly complicated way, of how the new administration's stance will complicate and slow what they're doing.
Zero Dark Thirty eschews the personal by design. We know nothing about Maya's background, she has little enough of a life to explore outside of her work and doesn't take to others easily. Our sense of her emerges slowly by way of Chastain's elegantly steely performance. Maya doesn't tend to let down her guard in front of others, and so our ideas about her inner life come from glimpses around its edges and through those moments when she lets things slip — from the warmth that bleeds into her interactions with her coworker and eventual friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) or the way she takes to writing the number of days of bureaucratic inaction on important information she uncovered on the door of her boss George's (Mark Strong) office.
Maya is suited to this life, as draining and dangerous as it is, and Chastain's physical delicacy provides stark contrast to the character's strength. She's an unconventional action heroine with an amusingly atypical (for a female lead) interest in making nice with those around her.
Like Jeremy Renner's bomb tech in The Hurt Locker, Maya hones herself to become the perfect tool for the job at hand. But Zero Dark Thirty is less interested in movie indulgences than its predecessor, which may be why its coolness makes it an easier effort to admire than to lose yourself in. Its periodic action sequences — involving two very disturbing bombings, a shootout and the raid itself, which is staged in urgent darkness and threaded with misgivings about whether or not it's a mistake — are brilliantly staged, but they're stations along the journey, to be braved, pushed past or endured.
Maya's true place is at a computer or making her case with growing conviction in a conference room as important men played by Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass and others are confronted by the force of her will, and the SEALs brought in to storm the compound (among them Chris Pratt, Taylor Kinney and Joel Edgerton) eye her with wary respect.
Zero Dark Thirty makes you feel every step of Maya's journey, but it's her impressive achievement and that of the film itself that we're left contemplating, not her humanity — a stunningly well-realized whole with few soft spots to latch onto.