Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a great American film: complicated, nuanced, searching, piercing, difficult — and yet thrilling and satisfying all the same. In dramatizing the nine-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, Bigelow examines some of the most pressing and important questions of our time; she’s asking what it is to be a “post 9/11″ American, but it’s a question she asks without actually, y’know, asking it. As with her Hurt Locker, a film that grows only more powerful and prescient, she’s patently uninterested in the pedantic. It is a film full of talk: in meetings, in interrogations, in negotiations. But she’ll do nothing so gauche as telling us what to think. The fully engaged audience gleans characterization through action, message through montage, and draws its own conclusions.
Mark Boal’s screenplay is, as we know (both from its opening crawl and the uninformed caterwauling of right-wing media earlier this year), “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” Appropriately, the film opens with a brief 9/11 montage, a black screen accompanied by a blur of radio noise and 911 recordings and phone messages, snatches of panic and fear that still resonate. The picture then jumps ahead two years, as young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives at a black site in an undisclosed location to witness the brutal “enhanced interrogation” of a possible al-Qaeda money man. These sequences are chilling; the agent in charge (Jason Clarke, so good in Lawless) snaps “Grab the bucket” at Maya, and later asks the detainee, “Do you want the water again, or do you want something else?” Bigelow will give us a pained cutaway to our heroine, but that as far off the hook as she’ll let us. (That the film doesn’t engage in screeching, heartfelt, explicitly stated “This is wrong!” moralizing has made it a target for the likes of Glenn Greenwald, whose asinine, sight-unseen condemnation of the film for “glorifying” torture is a black-or-white simplification of a film commendable for its many shades of grey.)
Over the course of those interrogations and her own investigation, Maya becomes convinced that the key to finding bin Laden is Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, his trusted courier and right-hand man. She is, it seems, the only one putting much faith in this particular lead, which only makes her dig in deeper; it’s a tough, driven, tricky character, brought to life via a tremendous performance by Chastain. Like Jeremy Renner’s William James in Hurt Locker, this is a protagonist that generates human interest without anything so drab as “human interest.” The performance is one of stubborn intensity, which lives in both her wordless reactions and procedural arias, in both the way she disappears in the back of the room and the way she makes herself known. And it takes no master of subtext to grasp the personal connection from Bigelow to her protagonist, another woman plowing forward in a field dominated by men, one who is perpetually (even at the moment of her greatest triumph) referred to as “the girl.”
But it is by no means solely Chastain’s show. The ensemble cast is sturdy — Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Mark Duplass James Gandolfini, the perpetually underrated Jennifer Ehle — while the DEVGRU team (including Joel Edgerton and the always welcome Chris Pratt) basically takes over for the third act. It’s a risky move, sidelining your protagonist, but Bigelow pulls it out; she hits 5/1/11 right around the two hour mark of the 157-minute picture, and stages a recreation of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in what amounts to real time. Eschewing mood music and deploying a carefully chosen subjective camera, the set piece is yet another exhibit in the argument that Bigelow is utterly peerless in creating and sustaining genuine (and maddening) onscreen tension — even when we know how it turns out.
But that’s what’s so remarkable about Zero Dark Thirty, recalling another film where our knowledge of its outcome rendered the narrative no less compelling: All the President’s Men, where the process becomes the story. Bigelow and Boal’s narrative is one of pushing and prodding, of dead ends and waiting, of bureaucracy and red tape. After all of their efforts, years of false leads and false starts, the mission is completed — and its cost is weighed throughout, but nowhere more than in Bigelow’s forceful and shattering final shot. This is the year’s most important film. It may very well also be its best.
Zero Dark Thirty is out Wednesday in limited release. It opens wide on January 11th.