Zero Dark Thirty does focus on, as the ads insist, "the greatest manhunt in history," but once you've seen this film, a woman — or maybe two — will be on your mind.
Following up on her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow proves herself once again to be a master of heightened realism and narrative drive in this retelling of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden.
The film's concluding section — a crisp re-creation of the Navy SEAL assault on the Pakistani compound where the wily mastermind lived and died — has been much-publicized, and the film's depiction of torture has become a tempest in a teapot. But those elements are both overshadowed by the performance of Jessica Chastain as the CIA operative who made the raid possible.
Chastain, Oscar-nominated for this role and last year for The Help, is a known quantity, but, like Jennifer Lawrence (her Academy Award rival this time around), she is a complete chameleon, able to vanish into a variety of roles so different from one another that the switch of persona can be disconcerting.
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Here, Chastain plays Maya, a CIA officer who quite literally devotes every waking moment to finding and destroying bin Laden. Her single-minded ferocity and stubbornness not only prove essential in the hunt but make up the emotional through line that engages us in the story of Zero Dark Thirty.
What is most exciting about Maya is that screenwriter Mark Boal, who collaborated with Bigelow on Hurt Locker, has shrewdly written her less like a heroine and more like an archetypal big-screen hero.
Maya doesn't have a boyfriend or any kind of life outside her work, and Boal's script conspicuously avoids burdening her with either a teary breakdown or a glib series of reasons to explain the way she acts. Icy, formidable, with a gaze that could melt steel and the sharpest tongue in town, she is a force among forces, and Chastain makes her frankly thrilling to behold.
If the way Zero carefully constructs Maya as a legend in her own time is classic hero-building, the script's approach to telling the manhunt story is as modern as it gets.
Boal, a former journalist, has researched these events so thoroughly that the eager press notes suggest Zero Dark Thirty should be thought of as "a unique kind of motion picture: the reported film." Be that as it may, viewers who have followed events in that part of the world will recognize specific situations — the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Islamabad in Pakistan, the 2009 suicide attack on Afghanistan's Camp Chapman that claimed several CIA agents — before they play out.
What is especially contemporary about Zero Dark Thirty's story line is that Boal's script begins by tossing us into the deep end, thrusting us right into the middle of a complicated situation and forcing us to trust that we'll eventually make sense of the welter of meetings, brutal interrogations and Middle Eastern names we're confronted with.
One reason Boal makes such a potent combination with Bigelow is that her directing style moves us right along. She is so good with action and creating a convincing look and feel for the film that the time it takes to get up to speed with the complicated plot does not feel like a problem.
Though in general Zero Dark Thirty is not as interested in exploring personality as Hurt Locker was, the one exception is Maya, a character based on a real person but also bolstered by the film's sense that the role women played in the bin Laden hunt has not been sufficiently recognized.
Maya is introduced in 2003, two years after 9/11, showing up at a so-called black site, an undisclosed CIA interrogation location. A more veteran colleague, Dan, remarks that she's wearing her "best suit, just off the plane from D.C."
Dan (convincing Australian actor Jason Clarke) is the CIA agent in charge of what's come to be known as "enhanced interrogation techniques." In these days during the administration of President George W. Bush, Dan is shown applying all kinds of severe physical abuse, including water- boarding, to a detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb, memorable as the drug-dealing Jordi in A Prophet).
This torture is quite painful to watch as it is being administered, but on the whole it's not shown to be particularly effective as a means of obtaining information. Though the overall result is to induce repugnance in the viewer, these scenes exist because of the effect they have on fresh-off-the-boat Maya: Initially unnerved, she soon gets her bearings and gets to work.
If Zero Dark Thirty (named after military-speak for the time of the bin Laden raid) has any message, it's that what is effective is Maya's meticulous, painstaking gathering of information over nearly a decade — a thankless process, not always done with support from her bosses, that led to the identification of a man named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti as the courier who personally delivered information to the al-Qaida leader.
You know you're watching a movie when what was doubtless a tremendously tedious process in real life is made as exciting as all get-out. This salute to what one character calls "big breaks and the little people who make them happen" is an example of cinematic storytelling at its most effective.