There is a scene early on in Zero Dark Thirty where the main character is asked to assist in water boarding a terrorist detainee. The way the film handles this quick exchange is a lively departure from almost any other Hollywood entertainment. For starters, the hero of the story is Maya, a CIA specialist with a severe one-track mind played by Jessica Chastain. But the movie moves right on past the rarity of a female lead in a major motion picture to use this moment to show you what kind of tone and character you should be prepared for. Maya, without hesitation, helps with the interrogation. She doesn’t object but allow it to happen anyway. She doesn’t pause because she’s squeamish. It’s not a scene about Maya overcoming her fears or proving she can hang with the boys. It’s a simple insight that the manhunt we’re about to witness begins without morality. It’s a bold statement that the rest of the film continues to color many shades of grey during the entire gripping runtime.
The search branches off from that initial interrogation. Maya sifts through the data while suffering setbacks and failures. The movie has a real jolt every time another attack happens. Part of this is my own memory not recalling them, but they also send the story spinning into the next chapter. They are scars to drive the search engine. But it’s not like Maya needs any reminders. Chastain is remarkable in the role. She does so many subtle things, her gifts may go unnoticed. Over the course of the film, everything from her posture to her hairstyle changes as she increasingly pressures herself. It reminded me a lot of another great film, Zodiac. But with that film the pursuit was about putting a face on the boogeyman and ending the nightmare. In Zero Dark Thirty, the characters are trying to heal what cannot be healed. Futility comes at a cost.
By design, the first half of the film is a little hard to follow. There are so many names, and so much information is thrown out. But as the film progresses, and the target becomes clearer, so does the movie. It’s a tantalizing and unique story structure with dialogue as whip smart as the plotting. Chastain barely speaks for the first half, and later she’s downright trash talking. A host of great character actors pop into the story (Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez) and leave just as quickly with Maya serving as the constant. Even though the history is known, the tension mounts as the end draws near.
And once the go ahead is given, and the final act ensues, precisely recreating the nighttime raid, the film’s greatness is never more apparent. It’s suspenseful, intelligent, and cinematically vibrant. On one hand the film is a simple procedural detailing recent history, a non-partisan piece of journalism. But beneath the robotic determination of Chastain, the expert construction, and cinema tradecraft is something thrillingly audacious. The film gives context to that moment Obama walked to the podium and delivered the news to the world. It shows what it took to get there for better or worse. Though it remains ambiguous, it can’t really be seen as a triumph. The final shot makes it clear. With one powerful image, director Kathyrn Bigelow says everything that needed to be said. It’s an outstanding achievement, and a great movie.