Kathryn Bigelow is drawn to characters that are drawn to danger. In her horror thriller Near Dark, a young man cannot help but join a biker gang full of marauding vampires. In her slick action film Point Break, a straight-laced cop helps a group of surfer bank robbers because they push themselves toward adrenaline-soaked insanity. Bigelow’s latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, follows this tradition and deepens it since her inexperienced main character is thrust into the morally-ambiguous milieu of post-9/11 espionage. This portrayal of the eight-year-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden is a procedural with the highest stakes, both in terms of outcome and in how it changes those involved. Zero Dark Thirty is not just Bigelow’s most ambitious film; it’s almost her most personal.
Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a young recruit who is brought into the CIA’s detainee program based on her reputation as a competent, ruthless professional. Fresh off the plane, she can barely watch as Dan (Jason Clarke) waterboards Ammar (Reda Kateb). Dan has more in store for the detainee: he sexually humiliates him and stuffs him into a tiny box. The torture is filmed with unflinching, terse cuts — we see enough to know Ammar is covered in shit, but no more — and these scenes cast a pall over a relatively relaxed interrogation, in which Dan and Maya trick Ammar into giving up the name of Bin Laden’s courier. In the film’s lengthy middle section, Maya defines her life by her search for Bin Laden, and after several minor terrorist victories, her dogged determination reaches the precipice of fanaticism. But through several lucky breaks and learned intuition, Maya and her team find what they believe to be Bin Laden’s compound; they wring their hands as Washington drags on whether to go forward with a covert operation.
Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal, who won an Academy Award for Bigelow’s previous film The Hurt Locker, complicate the efficacy of the torture. We know she thinks it’s wrong: at the New York City Film Critics’ awards ceremony this week, Bigelow elegantly defended herself with, “Depiction is not endorsement.” While it is still tempting to see a causal relationship between the carrot and the stick, the CIA gets actionable only when they use classic intelligence-gathering techniques. It is possible, then, that Ammar would have given up the name without being treated so harshly. Bigelow’s point is that we’ll never know, so now we’re all culpable by what’s been sacrificed in the manhunt. As Dan, Clarke gives an underrated performance as a man who is not a sadist, but exceptionally skilled at whatever his government requires of him. He’s a vessel for CIA policy until it’s too much, and then spends the rest of the film atoning for the torture. His final line, delivered flatly, is given to the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) but only Maya hears the self-loathing underneath it.
At first, Zero Dark Thirty seems like a personal film only because Maya is Bigelow’s stand-in. Like Bigelow, Maya is a hard-as-nails woman in a workplace dominated by men, and in early interviews, Bigelow mirrored Maya since she was at her most comfortable talking about the particulars of her job. The other important stand-in is Jessica, Maya’s more relaxed colleague. Played by Jennifer Ehle, who looks a little bit like the director, Jessica constantly tries to goad Maya into having a little fun. The film makes the case there is no room for relaxation — nearly every scene is from Maya’s perspective — yet this dialogue sounds as if Bigelow is talking to herself. By the time Jessica leaves the story and Maya orders musclebound soldiers to perform for her, she’s somewhere between an overzealous CIA analyst and a film director. Her tight, nuanced performance guides us through the dense procedural while also reflecting Bigelow’s fierce, coiled style.
There are over one hundred speaking roles in Zero Dark Thirty, yet somehow Boal and Bigelow never gloss over a performance. Every line and performance is necessary — none of the smaller parts count as cameos. Mark Strong is memorable as a higher-up in the CIA. He initially berates his underlings, begging them to, “Bring me some terrorists to kill.” Later he has a brief, smart scene with a White House official, played by Stephen Dillane, about how best to analyze risk in the face of uncertainty. Faces are familiar and unknown in equal measure, and the memorable casting choices are a shrewd way to summarize a character while preserving a sense of verisimilitude. Chris Pratt, normally in comic roles, is terrific as an outspoken soldier who uses levity to deal with stress. In what should be a tense moment, Pratt’s delivery of a funny line also casts fundamental doubt over his mission.
Though we may already know the outcome, the raid on Bin Laden’s compound is the subject matter for some of most tense, breathless filmmaking of the year. Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser minimize light to its essentials: even bathed in darkness, the images are still crisp and ominous. The soldiers are mostly faceless, but it’s easy to follow the particulars of the operation since they’re given a series of discrete problems to solve. As with The Hurt Locker, deliberate logic once again has a way of heightening suspense: each door presents a new challenge, and the longer the soldiers are in the compound, the more attention they attract. In a masterstroke, Bigelow drains Bin Laden’s shooting of any drama. He dies on the other side of a door from where the camera is, and the guy who shoots him is more dumbstruck than triumphant. Thrilling as the sequence is, the impact is not wholly felt until another soldier enters the compound, who had spent the entire operation outside it. He retraces the steps of the soldiers, one dead body after another, and we share his horror in the aftermath. Violence defines all of Bigelow’s films, and here she nonetheless possesses the matter-of-fact honesty to see the ugliness underneath American triumphalism.
Zero Dark Thirty cascades on itself. From its haunting opening, each new scene enriches the significance of the previous one. Bigelow’s editing looks like a documentary, so when she inserts actual news footage, the transition is seamless. This gives the film an overwhelming feeling of accuracy, a trick that only demonstrates Bigelow’s command of cinema’s power. Still, for all its restraint, Zero Dark Thirty would not have been a great film without its relatively languid final scene. With Osama Bin Laden dead, Maya has no mission or purpose. She’s at a loss when someone asks her a simple question. In a lengthy close-up, Maya’s withered, uncertain face reflects her loss. It is the loss of Bigelow, who is happiest behind the camera, and the loss of the America’s moral clarity. Maya weeps because it’s different now, and not necessarily better.