We tell ourselves that we deserve to know everything. That we can manage the truth, however burdensome it may be. The reality is that we want to hear a great story, and if the truth is part of it than all the better. Zero Dark Thirty is eager to give us both, revealing the epic tale behind the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, and uncovering just enough gory detail to establish the film’s verisimilitude without melodramatics. Director Kathryn Bigelow and Writer Mark Boal aren’t interested in the mythology of this already mythologized tale, and their composure results in a deeply enthralling story. A story about a woman who spent the better part of her life hunting a man, and the considerable toll that process took.
Jessica Chastain is Maya, a 20-something CIA officer assigned to the US Embassy in Pakistan to work with CIA Interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke). Having already spent years studying Al-Qaeda, Maya is placed to continue the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and her years in Pakistan are spent culling information from detainees through any means necessary. When one prisoner reveals the name of bin Laden’s courier–Abu Ahmed–Maya recognizes this as the first major break the CIA has had in the search, and follows the lead down the rabbit hole of terrorist tradecraft and American politics. For five years Maya attempts to track Ahmed, before eventually finding him in Abottobad, Pakistan. Ahmed’s activity leads the CIA to a mysterious compound on the fringes of the city, and on May 2, 2011, a team of Navy Seals raid the compound, killing the world’s most notorious terrorist.
To date, Mark Boal’s resume is relatively slight. His first true feature won him an Academy Award, and though The Hurt Locker was certainly an impressive first entry, it was also a contentious win in a weak year for movies. Kathryn Bigelow obviously sees Boal as a top-tier writer, but that’s a dubious appellation for someone with such a small body of work. Zero Dark Thirty though feels far more like the product of a big-time talent, and should cement Boal as a sought after screenwriter. In a film with a running time of 157 minutes, there is very little fat to speak of, and more than enough plot and character development to keep audiences engaged. This is a harrowing tale, and Bigelow’s direction is tactful enough to maintain a palliative rise and fall, but that discretion begins with Boal’s script. His focus never shifts from Maya, and his ability to rotate the secondary characters in and out of the story both maintains her characterization as a lone voice of reason amidst a sea of politicos, and emphasizes the long years she spends toiling away. In The Hurt Locker it seemed as though Bigelow was occasionally carrying Boal’s screenplay through its rough patches. It seems that here those roles may have reversed.
That said, neither the direction or the writing would get far without Jessica Chastain as the film’s focal point. We’ve seen Chastain play a number of roles in a number of films exceptionally well, though this is the first instance where a director has trusted her this completely to carry a film, and, predictably, she is equal to the challenge. While the real life CIA operative the character is based on remains undercover (and probably always will, as terrorists hold grudges better than most), personal accounts regard her as a no-nonsense loner with a singular focus. Chastain’s beauty and natural efficacy soften the hard edges just a bit, but this remains a character disinterested in building or maintaining friendships–disinterested in anything, really, besides her objective. Much of the film finds Maya exhausted yet incapable of anything save absolute tenacity, and Chastain wears this combination like a shroud. There’s a sense that Maya’s womanhood in room after room full of men is an added hurdle, though it’s unclear to what extent this is positioned to define the character. While it was surely a hardship for the real life operative, the film isn’t clear as to whether the resistance she meets is a result of her gender or her general antagonism. More often it’s neither, as her superiors’ reticence to act is born of a lack of hard evidence. Though there’s proof enough for Maya, gut feelings tend to die rather quickly when it comes time to make the hard decisions.
And hard decisions are a dime a dozen in Zero Dark Thirty, as you’d expect in a film centered on the hunt for the most famous terrorist the world has ever known. Nothing comes easy for Maya, as we see from the opening sequence wherein a detainee (Reda Kateb) is tortured for information and she is hastily introduced to the world of counter-terrorism. This is arguably the most harrowing sequence, and has become the focus of heated debate regarding the film’s position. Yet one of the most striking components to Zero Dark Thirty is its apparent lack of judgment. While they’re not entirely successful, Bigelow and Boal nevertheless do an admirable job of maintaining their distance from the story. This is as diplomatic a telling as we can expect from Hollywood, and I doubt either the writer or the director would try to claim utter objectivity. Regardless, the duo’s second film is an efficient, effective look at a galvanizing moment in our nation’s history, and the exhaustive route we took to get there. While bin Laden’s death was a cause of celebration for many, Zero Dark Thirty‘s final moments are far from celebratory. The film ends quietly, suggesting ever so gently that there’s always more work to be done, more evil to pursue. Suggesting, even, that heroes aren’t heroic. At least not in the way we like to imagine.