Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker blends fact and fiction to chronicle America's decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden though the eyes of his unlikely killer: an upstart flame-haired CIA operative called Maya (Jessica Chastain).
The film begins on a chilling note; emergency calls made on September 11 are heard over a black screen before a grim interrogation at a CIA black site in Pakistan plays out. "Lie to me and I hurt you," Jason Clarke's Dan tells Ammar (Reda Kateb) as he waterboards him, strips him naked and throws him into a tiny cupboard. Maya watches on, visibly shaken by the brutal tactics employed in a bid to extract information.
Her squeamishness fades as she delves further into the chase for Bin Laden. Later, we watch her casually observing video footage of torture while chatting on the phone to a colleague. There's no backstory, no boyfriend at home, no mention of a relative in the Twin Towers - all we know of Maya is that she was recruited to the CIA from high school and Washington calls her "a killer".
- "There's no backstory, no boyfriend at home, no mention of a relative in the Twin Towers - all we know of Maya is that she was recruited to the CIA from high school and Washington calls her 'a killer'."
For the majority of its running time, Zero Dark Thirty plays out as a scalpel-sharp, forensic procedural (think David Fincher's Zodiac). Maya's superiors, among them Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong, think she's chasing ghosts but the trail heats up when her team latches on to a courier in Pakistan who they believe works for Bin Laden.
The piecing together of his whereabouts makes for a gripping and utterly compelling story, and Bigelow and Boal come up with ingenious ways to articulate Maya's frustration at her CIA superiors. Her calmly inscrutable exterior crumbles in a scene where she berates Chandler's Joseph Bradley, then later she starts leaving tallies in marker pen on the window of Strong's office to highlight the days that have passed since discovering Bin Laden's residence.
Much has been made of Zero Dark Thirty's torture and the role it played in leading the CIA to Bin Laden, but the film is careful to show that no usable intel is extracted from this brutality. The most pertinent piece of information comes when Maya and Dan speak to Ammar over hummus, and there are hints thrown in about Dan's frayed state of mind when he's seen babbling to monkeys and retreating to a Washington desk job after seeing one naked man too many.
Most tellingly of all, Maya and her CIA colleagues watch TV footage of President Obama promising to end the US's torture of terrorism suspects. It's baffling that anyone could view this movie as an endorsement of torture. In striving to tell a story that reflects the US's post-9/11 counterterrorism policy, is it more truthful to include or exclude the unsavoury interrogation techniques utilised?
When the Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden's hideout finally does happen, the film shifts up a gear for a sensational last 30 minutes. The outcome is never in doubt, of course, but Bigelow's sublime skill as an action director comes into play as she's able to create tense shoot-outs viewed through infra-red goggles in the dead of night.
- "The outcome is never in doubt, of course, but Bigelow's sublime skill as an action director comes into play as she's able to create tense shoot-outs viewed through infra-red goggles in the dead of night."
Zero Dark Thirty's closing shot circles the film back to Maya, possibly even mirroring the end of Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. There Jeremy Renner's bomb disposal daredevil stepped back into the breach, chasing the adrenaline rush he's sorely missed, yet here Maya feels the personal cost, realising her obsession is now gone and permanently out of reach.
It's a scene of apparent calm that quickly shifts, underlining how brilliant Chastain is in this role - a poignant emotional coda to an absolutely extraordinary feat of journalistic filmmaking.