The ironic thing about Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping, harrowing procedural, is that the movie was originally intended to be about the CIA’s unsuccessful search for Osama bin Laden. Screenwriter Mark Boal ( The Hurt Locker) was already deep into his script in May 2011 when the elusive terrorist was shot and killed in a Pakistani compound by U.S. Navy SEALs.
Boal started rewriting immediately, but to say bin Laden’s death gave the story a happy ending isn’t entirely accurate. There’s little patriotic, rah-rah cheer or backslapping in Zero Dark Thirty: This is a study of people saddled with supremely difficult jobs, doing them as well as they can. Instead of trying to provide a panoramic look at the decade-long search for bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty unfolds almost entirely through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), who we first meet as she witnesses the “extreme interrogation” of a suspect by a fellow agent (Jason Clark). The questioning includes water boarding, sleep deprivation, bondage and other forms of abuse.
Maya (based on a real-life CIA agent known only as Jen) looks on quietly with the same lack of emotion as the movie does. Zero Dark Thirty takes no moral stance on the subject of torture as a means of prying usable information from suspects. The film simply shows, and the lack of any bias or slant keeps the narrative from getting mired in questions of ethics and injustice. Bigelow leaves that to the viewer.
That same journalistic approach extends to recreations of bombings, an attack on a CIA compound and other terrorist activity during the decade the movie covers. Even more than The Hurt Locker, which sometimes relied on traditional film techniques to build suspense , Zero Dark Thirty resists manipulating the viewer or building movie-movie excitement. The raid on bin Laden’s compound, which is shown in real time primarily through night-vision goggles (essentially turning you into one of the SEALs on the mission), builds on Bigelow’s extensive use of the first-person point-of-view technique she used in Strange Days, but to radically different effect. The sequence is alarming, unnerving — a vivid, visceral illustration of the outsized courage of these soldiers.
The true hero of Zero Dark Thirty, however, is Maya, played by Chastain with an unwavering determination and perseverance that borders on the pathological. Her victory comes at a price. Maya has no apparent friends, boyfriends or relatives: Her co-workers are her only social outlet, and they’re not exactly a fun bunch — they’re just as single-minded as she is. Maya is as consumed with finding bin Laden as Jake Gyllenhaal was obsessed with finding a serial killer in Zodiac, only he was doing it as a hobby. This search is Maya’s life, and by reenacting her quest in scrupulous detail, Zero Dark Thirty celebrates her accomplishment and drive — her refusal to give up where others surrendered to frustration.