Much as they did in their 2008 collaboration The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and two-time screenwriter Mark Boal eye the line where suspense resides and push straight through to stress, to agitation. As a cinematic experience, Zero Dark Thirty can be downright punishing – a word not chosen lightly, given that U.S.-sanctioned torture figures prominently here and has been courting controversy since even before the film’s release. Some critics have wagged that Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture, while other government officials have complained that the film oversells the efficacy of the enhanced interrogation techniques that for many came to define the Bush era. But dramatization of a thing is not the same as an endorsement of it, and Bigelow and Boal make it plain that the intelligence extracted via torture was compromised at best and, frequently, flat wrong. But you don’t tell this story – of the CIA’s decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden – without including torture, and pussyfooting around that would have only roused the ire of a different set of critics.
Bigelow is not a kid-glove kind of filmmaker. She opens with a stark black screen and audio of real-life voicemails left by 9/11 victims just moments before the World Trade Center collapsed. It’s a measure of the seriousness of her intentions that this opening gambit doesn’t feel instantly exploitative. The audio runs as a precursor to an extended torture scene, led by a scary, charismatic operative named Dan (Clarke), who calls his prisoner (Kateb) “bro.” The proximity between these scenes could be misread as an apologia. I think it’s just context: The jihadis aren’t the only ones who believe they are fighting a holy war.
CIA analyst Maya (Chastain, riveting) is a new recruit to that war. You can chart her evolution from that first torture scene, in which she is a smart-suited observer and green around the gills, to several years into her tenure in Pakistan, where she now leads the interrogation and taps a strong-arm to do the punching for her. The blood runs cold at that casual tap, but the filmmakers don’t underscore the moment with a close-up, don’t chew it over with any psychoanalytic monologuing. This isn’t that kind of movie. It’s a mistake to confuse Zero Dark Thirty for “truth” – that would be a disservice to the high level of craftsmanship, from first-billed actors to below-the-line production crew, at work in this movie fiction – but there is admirably little fat on its bones. No love interests, no backstories, no B-plot about Maya’s childhood: Zero Dark Thirty is as ruthlessly, relentlessly single-minded as she is about the hunt for bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Édgar Ramirez, Fares Fares, James Gandolfini, Reda Kateb