Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

With her alternately brutal and mathematically precise epic tale of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow not only proves she's one of the greatest directors working today but also suggests she might have created a new genre: the war procedural.

The single most honest moment about the war on terror that’s yet been seen on movie screens comes early in Kathryn Bigelow’s thoughtful, taut war film Zero Dark Thirty. Some American intelligence analysts are meeting in a conference room, circa 2008. A TV is on, playing an interview with Barack Obama, in which he states loud and clear, “America does not torture.” Everybody watches and listens for a second, then gets back to the work. They know what they were told to do in interrogating suspects about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, and they know that scapegoats are going to be served up in Washington quite soon. As lead interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) tells his protégée Maya (Jessica Chastain), “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”

Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad. It’s nothing like a desk job, with Maya taking part in Dan’s horrific waterboarding of detainee Ammar (Reda Kateb) and later having her car riddled with AK-47 fire and losing several colleagues to a suicide bomber.

As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts, with almost too much care, the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing... Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior George (Mark Strong).

Later, after a few choice insights punch a hole in the wall of protection around bin Laden’s whereabouts, Maya is there as the SEAL team is debriefed. Playing the role of acerbic obsessive to a tee (Chastain has rarely been this on-point), Maya refuses to be awed by them, telling one that she didn’t want anything to do with “your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit.” The film itself, for all its tick-tock attention to detail and its determination to link bin Laden’s capture directly to the use of torture (a point already controversial in some circles), has a similar disinclination to buy into the romantic mania surrounding all things special forces. That being said, the assault on the Abbottabad compound that caps the film is a riveting and sharply framed sequence of near-perfection. Somehow, Bigelow threads the needle between illustrating the awe-inspiring machinelike coordination of the team without celebrating it. In other words, nobody will leave the theater shouting, “U! S! A!”

Using Mark Boal’s closely researched screenplay to even greater effect than their last collaboration in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow here creates a hybridized spy procedural and behind-enemy-lines war film. In one deft move, she inaugurates a new genre, delivers a comprehensive and clear-eyed accounting of the hunt for bin Laden that will be nearly impossible to top, and takes her place in the pantheon of great contemporary filmmakers. Before this film, Bigelow’s closest comparisons may have been high-toned pulp auteurs like James Cameron and Sam Raimi. But Zero Dark Thirty is closer in tone to Steven Soderbergh. Shot by Greig Fraser like a series of war-journalist snapshots, gleaming with understated malice, the film is precise to a fault, verging on clinical, with little of the pulse-pounding bravura of The Hurt Locker. This is not a bad thing, as much as it might frustrate some audiences. Bigelow is taking a cold look at a hot subject, and because of that her film will stand the test of time.