Whether you call it well-informed speculative history, docudrama re-creation or very stripped-down suspense filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty matches form and content to pretty terrific ends. A long-arc account of the search for Osama bin Laden seen from the perspective of an almost insanely focused female CIA officer who never gives up the hunt until the prey ends up in a body bag, Kathryn Bigelow’s and Mark Boal’s heavily researched successor to Oscar winner The Hurt Locker will be tough for some viewers to take, not only for its early scenes of torture, including waterboarding, but due to its denial of conventional emotionalism and non-gung ho approach to cathartic revenge-taking. Films touching on 9/11, such as United 93, World Trade Center and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, have proved commercially toxic, and while this one has a “happy” ending, its rigorous, unsparing approach will inspire genuine enthusiasm among the serious, hardcore film crowd more than with the wider public.
Even though it runs more than 2 1/2 hours, Zero Dark Thirty is so pared to essentials that even politics are eliminated; there’s essentially no Bush or Cheney, no Iraq War, no Obama announcing the success of the May 2, 2011, raid on bin Laden’s in-plain-sight Pakistani compound. Similarly absent is any personal life for the single-minded heroine; when it’s suggested at one point that she might want to have a fling, she colorfully replies that she’s not a girl who does that sort of thing. The film does question whether she gives up some of her humanity to so selflessly dedicate herself to this sole professional aim but seems to answer that, for some, this is what represents the essence of life; everything else is preparation and waiting.
Its military-jargon title referring to a state of darkness as well as to the time of 12:30 a.m., Zero Dark Thirty opens with 90 seconds or so of black screen accompanied by a soundtrack collage of emergency phone calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers; no need for the familiar visuals here. Cut to two years later, when a captured nephew of Osama bin Laden undergoes a prolonged series of brutal CIA interrogations that involve beatings, waterboarding, being bound by a dog collar and ropes and getting locked in a small wooden box. It’s not the most inviting way to usher a viewer into a movie.
Then again, the hunt for bin Laden was no picnic either; it was an enormously frustrating endeavor that untold amounts of money, manpower and strategic thinking couldn’t bring to a successful close for nearly a decade. The man who had engineered the deaths of some 4,000 people became a phantom, protected by forbidding geography, loyal followers and an already legendary aura.
For a while, as the film hopscotches through the years, Boal’s script appears to be structured journalistically around a series of greatest terrorist hits, so to speak: We witness the deadly outrages of a 2004 attack in Saudi Arabia, the 2005 bus and tube bombing in London, the 2008 attack on the Karachi Marriott and, the following year, a shocking breach at a secured CIA base in Afghanistan.
Connecting the dots, however, is the dogged presence of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young, flame-haired CIA officer who barely flinches when she first witnesses torture, is described as “a killer” by a colleague and, after a close call, allows that, “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.” Boal, who dug as deeply into the classified aspects of the case as possible but seems to have been more committed to protecting the identities of those involved than even some participants have been, has said that there really is a “Maya,” though details have been fudged and altered to prevent identification.
Given no backstory, links to the world outside the CIA or any interest in small talk or other subjects, Maya occasionally has a drink to unwind but otherwise seems entirely incapable of shutting down her laser-like focus of her obsession. She becomes tolerably friendly with a gregarious, chatty female colleague (the ever-wonderful Jennifer Ehle) but most of the time is the only female in the room; she knows when to hold her tongue, and her frustrations are legion, but she also finds her moments to assert herself and speak out to superiors when she suspects her contributions are being ignored, due either to her rank or because she’s a woman.
Much as she did with the equally tightly wound protagonist of The Hurt Locker, Bigelow sends Maya through a minefield, this time consisting of bureaucratic trip-wires as well as potentially fatal traps. The director also successfully creates a double-clad environment that is both eerie and threatening, that of the supposedly safe and protected enclaves of the CIA that exist within the larger context of the Muslim world. From very early on, Maya seizes on the idea that the way to eventually track down bin Laden is to identify and follow his couriers, as they will inevitably one day reveal where the Al-Qaeda leader is hiding.
As we know, she’s right, but it takes years for the tactic to pay off. Even once she and her cohorts track down the long-elusive Abu Ahmad, following his vehicle through the chaotic streets of Rawalpindi is a nightmare. But after a succession of road blocks, setbacks and dead ends, Maya finally convinces herself that bin Laden is holed up in the house in Abbottabad, whereupon her convictions ascend the ladder of command to the point where the CIA director (James Gandolfini) braces himself to enter the Oval Office and recommend a stealth raid to the president.
Bigelow and Boal play a long game, moving from the brutal opening through impressively detailed but not always compelling vignettes of the CIA at work to interludes in which Maya’s ferocious dedication begins to possibly pay dividends and finally to the climactic 40 minutes, which lay out with extraordinary detail and precision the almost improbably successful operation that begins at Area 51 in Nevada, where we first see the amazing stealth helicopters ideally designed for such a mission, and ends with Maya identifying the body that’s brought back.
In between is an exceptionally riveting sequence done with no sense of rah-rah patriotic fervor but, rather, tremendous appreciation for the nervy way top professionals carry off a very risky job of work; Howard Hawks would have been impressed. Slipping low through mountain passes in darkness from Afghanistan to Pakistan with rotor noise muffled by special equipment, the two choppers drop off their Navy SEALs, one then crashes in the yard but, remarkably, the noise seems not to arouse any locals just yet.
The men, all wearing helmets that bizarrely feature four night vision lenses protruding from the front, proceed into the sealed-up house, breaking down doors and exploding locks as they go. Instead of rushing the place, as per usual cinematic practice, they move slowly and cautiously, room by room, killing the messenger, among others, and encountering several women and many children as they go. The tall man remains elusive, but there are still more doors to open. Still, with each minute, the danger of exposure and failure increases — locals from the neighborhood are beginning to head toward the house — and they still haven’t found their prize. Until, finally, they do.
Because of the black-and-green, video-like quality of the night vision imagery, these momentous events possess the pictorial quality of low-budget Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity thrillers, which merely contributes further to their weirdness. And because of the deliberate pace at which the men make their way through the house, an unsettling airlessness sets in, a feeling of being suspended in time that’s unlike any equivalent climactic action sequence that comes to mind.
But quite apart from its historical significance, at least the scene is here to provide a welcome catharsis, as at one time would not have been the case. The filmmakers initially embarked on this project before the bin Laden raid took place, which obviously would have resulted in an entirely different sort of film, dramatically and philosophically; without a resolution, it could hardly have helped from being an existential tale of quite substantial dimensions.
As it has emerged instead, Zero Dark Thirty could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal, as one keenly feels the drive of the filmmaker channeled through the intensity of Maya’s character. The film’s power steadily and relentlessly builds over its long course, to a point that is terrifically imposing and unshakable.
Chastain carries the film in a way she’s never been asked to do before. Denied the opportunity to provide psychological and emotional details for Maya, she nonetheless creates a character that proves indelible and deeply felt. The entire cast works in a realistic vein to fine effect.
Similarly, all the technical contributions are put at the service of full verisimilitude. Locations in Jordan and India fill in beautifully for Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.