There’s a moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s dense but lightning-quick procedural, Zero Dark Thirty, when Jessica Chastain’s Maya is actually laughed at for trying to pursue Osama bin Laden. “Protect the homeland” is the motto her superiors pound into her like she’s a canine undergoing obedience training. But she’s a real pit bull. She lashes back, demands the resources she needs to capture Al-Qaeda’s #1, and not 45 movie minutes later, she’s staring at his lifeless corpse.
The film, as much as it’s about the hunt for “UBL,” is a character piece. We first meet Maya in a detention center circa 2003. She’s been recruited to the CIA straight out of high school, and though she’s a tough cookie, it takes her a little time to understand and accept the agency’s methods. The torture she witnesses her colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), perform on a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), turns her stomach.
Before long, she’s questioning higher-level Al-Qaeda operatives, and though her demeanor is cold, she easily earns the respect of those around her. But it’s a clue given by Ammar—not during his “enhanced interrogation,” but afterward—that piques her interest. He drops the name “Abu Ahmed.” He’s nothing more than a courier, yet his story is a mystery to everyone around her. How can a guy like him become such a ghost? Easy. Be the guy who hand delivers messages between bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Maya walks the fine line between genius and insanity in her pursuit of Abu Ahmed. In the years immediately following the start of the Iraq War, it’s a rather promising pursuit her colleagues and superiors are happy to let her undertake. However, following the 2005 bombings in London, the election of the decidedly anti-torture (if not in practice then at least in rhetoric) President Obama, and an attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan that strikes everyone (particularly Maya) close to home, priorities change, and her doggedness feels wasted on bin Laden.
Though the film runs a hefty 160 minutes, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal spare us any fluff. Every detail feels essential to either the hunt for bin Laden or to building Maya’s character. It’s a masterful two-step this duo dances. On the one hand, Zero Dark Thirty is a brilliant and breathtaking example of film as journalism. On the other, we get to spend two and a half hours with the heroine of the movie decade. Sure, we don’t know much about Maya, but that’s sort of the point. She is her job, and when it’s done, she weeps. Where does she go from here? Where does America go from here?
Zero Dark Thirty‘s handling of torture is barely worth noting in the context of a film review. According to Bigelow and Boal, it happened and it moved us a few steps down the very long and winding path to bin Laden. Much more interesting on a purely cinematic level is the raid on bin Laden’s safe house. For two hours, Zero Dark Thirty is crisp and polished beyond belief (considering how raw and gritty The Hurt Locker was). Once Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, and the rest of Seal Team Six board their heli, however, the film becomes a masterclass in thrilling, you-are-there filmmaking. The darkness of rural Pakistan renders any semblance of artful cinematography moot. Instead, Greig Fraser switches on the infrared lighting, and Bigelow lets her actors swarm the compound. Their confusion is our confusion. The knots in their stomachs are the knots in our stomachs.
As much as the film belongs to Bigelow and Boal, it’s also Jessica Chastain’s movie. Even during the film’s most brutal torture sequences, you’re glued to her anguished face. We’ve seen so much of Chastain over the last 18 months, but her work here is both unique and unparalleled. It’s not the kind of performance you’re probably expecting. For example, there’s nary a mention of her character’s gender in the context of a traditionally masculine field of work. She’s mostly a coiled bundle of toughness and focus, but when she uncoils (and we get to see some emotion), she’s unforgettable.
The film’s two most noteworthy supporting performances come courtesy of Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle. The former sets a tone of cold but intense forcefulness. He leads the torture in a frighteningly detached way, and though he doesn’t have much to do once the film reaches its hour mark, he leaves quite an impression. Ehle, meanwhile, gives the film a dose of heart. She also gives Maya a dose of humanity.
The film is an unforgettable one on so many levels. Craft-wise, it’s impeccable. Story-wise, it’s essential. Want more great performances? See also Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, and Edgar Ramirez. There’s an argument to be made about Zero Dark Thirty‘s superiority or inferiority vis-à-vis The Hurt Locker, but what’s certain is that Bigelow’s latest is one of 2012′s very best films.