In Zero Dark Thirty, the key figure in the manhunt for Osama bin Laden is a headstrong and singularly persistent young woman named Maya.
A CIA analyst superlatively played by Jessica Chastain (and based on an actually operative), Maya spends years tracking wispy leads and ambiguous clues gathered by the agency from around the world, assembling data from detainee interrogations, phone intercepts, surveillance footage and other sources to narrow in on the hiding place of the worlds most elusive quarry.
Its agonizingly painstaking investigative work, made compelling by Mark Boals deeply researched and tightly constructed screenplay and by Kathryn Bigelows masterly direction. Oscar winners for their work on The Hurt Locker, the pairs collaboration on Zero Dark Thirty is even more assured and trenchant this time around.
Part detective story, part spy thriller, part action movie the recreation of the Navy SEAL raid on bin Ladens Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, nearly a half-hour long, is a sheer nail-biter the picture is also a contemplation of the changes wrought on the American government, and by extension the U.S. psyche, by the war on terror.
The pitilessness of the 9/11 attacks provokes a pitiless response by the U.S. government, leading to the use of torture and secret renditions as weapons of first resort in the fight against al Qaeda. In the pictures opening sequences, a detainee is waterboarded and otherwise harshly treated by CIA operatives led by a character played by Jason Clarke.
Bigelow focuses on the psychological aspects of the torture, with Clarkes character, clearly no sadist but rather a man who believes hes carrying out an unpleasant but necessary task, telling the detainee that its he, the detainee, who has control over the amount of pain hell be subjected to. Cooperate, and the pain will stop. But, if you lie to me, Im going to hurt you.
The torment takes a toll on the interrogator as well, shown in a scene in which he informs Maya that he can no longer stomach what hes doing and has to transfer to a desk job back in the States.
The effect on Maya herself is also explored. Newly assigned to the interrogation team, shes quietly unsettled at first by what she sees. But as time goes on, her characters attitudes harden until she too is telling a detainee you determine how youre treated. And as the years pass, marked by such further terrorist attacks as the London transit bombings of 2005 and the suicide truck bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel in 2008 in which more than 50 people died (her character is present in the hotel for that one), and as a friend is killed in another attack, Maya develops the mind set of a pitiless warrior. Like her superiors at the CIA, she is dedicated to the proposition that the hunt for bin Laden will have but one outcome: his death. Briefing the SEAL team, she tells them, youre going to kill him for me. Zero Dark Thirty makes clear shes channeling the nations sentiments when she says it.
‘ZERO DARK THIRTY’
* * * *
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Reda Kateb, James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Stephen Dillane
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Running time: 2:35
Rated: R; strong violence, including brutal, disturbing images, language