A lot of people think they know what they want Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie to be. A triumphant story of all-American resolve and revenge, for one thing, or a cry of outrage at a democratic government that employs torture. A black ops tell-all, or a Hollywood roller coaster ride. A conspiracy thriller. A video game.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is none of those things.
It’s not “Homeland,” either, even if Maya, the CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain (and apparently based on an actual operative), bears a slight resemblance to the Showtime series’ Carrie Mathison, minus the bipolar outbursts. Like Carrie, Maya is professional, obsessional, and not taken too seriously by the cocksure men around her. Late in the game, she does get off a line of dialogue in which she puts the big boys in their place — you’ll be hearing it a lot, even if it’s not quotable here — but the moment is less a swaggering Schwarzenegger-style quip than a simple claiming of credit: I found Osama bin Laden, and you didn’t, and don’t you forget it. That a woman is saying this (to the director of the CIA, no less; played by James Gandolfini, no less) is merely gravy in Bigelow’s view of things.
“Zero Dark Thirty” unfolds over a nine-year period, from the early days of the war in Afghanistan to the compound in Abbottabad and the midnight assault from which the movie takes its name. (The title is military-speak for 12:30 a.m.) Bigelow stays close to the ground, focused on Maya as she picks at loose strands of intel, trying to pull up a thread that might lead into the dark and all the way to Osama. The changings of political administrations and stateside culture wars are, at best, background noise. (We see Barack Obama only once, on TV, telling an interviewer that “America doesn’t torture”; by that point in the film, it’s a bleak joke.) Like the most ambitious movies of 2012 — “Lincoln,” “Argo” — this one’s concerned with process rather than personalities. Chastain doesn’t give a star performance but something braver and less ego-driven. Maya’s a heroic functionary, struggling to see the long game and retain her ideals (which include patriotism) while navigating a mapless post-9/11 universe.
It’s all too easy to lose one’s moral bearings in this new terrain. The film’s opening sequences take place in a cement-bunker “black site” somewhere in the Middle East, where bad things are happening to a suspected terrorist named Ammar (Reda Kateb) at the hands of a bearded young dude of an agent named Dan (Jason Clarke). Bigelow and writer Mark Boal make us look — they want us to look — at the pummelings, the waterboarding, the dog collars, the imprisonment in tiny wooden boxes.
The movie neither glorifies the use of torture nor explicitly condemns it, which has become a serious problem for some commentators. But the filmmakers aren’t out to persuade. “Zero Dark Thirty” is, in its entirety, an act of imagined witness, and those early scenes are meant to confront Maya and ourselves equally. She initially shrinks from what Dan and others are capable of, then makes an inner decision and gets back to the business at hand, which for her isn’t torture but everything that comes after: what you do with the information you have or haven’t got.
Yet by not protesting, she’s condoning, and that, the movie implies, is a burden she’ll have to live with for the rest of her days. For us, it’s a similar bargain. Your individual response to the torture sequences in “Zero Dark Thirty” marks your willingness to be complicit in them, which is a conversation only for yourself and the darker corners of your conscience.
Bigelow and Boal slowly move us out of this den of horrors into a more routine landscape of CIA “tradecraft”: following leads, bribing Saudi princes, collating information, hitting dead ends, pushing for back-up and follow-up. A tip about an Al Qaeda courier (gleaned from Ammar during a friendly post-torture lunch, a bit of fictionalizing that’s a misstep on the filmmakers’ part) leads over the years to a cellphone number, and then a name, and then a house — and then a shadowy someone inside that house. Is it the 9/11 mastermind? “It screams bad guy,” says one character. “But it doesn’t scream bin Laden.”
The drudge work is punctuated by bombings, re-created in the film with a calm sense of dread: 22 dead in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, May 29, 2004; 56 dead in London, July 7, 2005; 54 dead at the Islamabad Marriott, Sept. 20, 2008. We meet embassy bureaucrats (Kyle Chandler), Langley wonks (Mark Duplass), grave-faced Arab colleagues (Fares Fares) — the cast is huge and largely male. The only other female operative in sight is Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), as committed as Maya but more emotional, less patient to let shards of information gather into a larger picture. As in Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” impatience is presented as an unnecessary risk at best, foolhardiness at worst.
And yet we’re meant to share Maya’s own impatience when she knows enough to make her educated guess and the higher-ups still refuse to take action. There are movie clichés in “Zero Dark Thirty” — Maya furiously scrawling on her boss’s office window the number of days ticking by — but they spring from the character’s drive rather than a desire to rile up the audience. Bigelow is more interested in moments of ordinary surrealism: a plaza full of burka-clad women and the one detail (black leather boots) that makes you realize they’re all CIA agents in disguise.
It’s a movie made with the same coolly fanatical attention to craft the lead character displays in her work. Bigelow is now recognized as one of our true filmmaking naturals — she always has been, even when no one was looking (go back and watch 1987’s “Near Dark”) — and “Zero Dark Thirty” holds us in its grip for 157 minutes, much of which is about people being stymied. The director’s identification with Maya is there for the taking, adding a bit more spine to the tale without turning it overtly personal.
Anyway, it’s not a personal film. Rather, it’s about one person’s critical place in the larger effort. As everyone knows by now, the final half hour of “Zero Dark Thirty” painstakingly re-creates the Navy SEALs’ attack of May 2, 2011, in which Osama and four others in the Abbottabad compound were killed. Bigelow films it not as a gung-ho rodeo but as a military procedural, with its own flaws, snafus, successes, corpses. Her camera is mostly embedded within the SEAL unit: We’re part of the team, it’s night, no one really knows what’s going on. The miracle is that it came off at all. The scene respects the SEALs as both professionals and stressed-out individuals, and when, at the end, Bigelow briefly revisits the compound’s dead — including a husband and wife whose weeping children survive them — it’s a moment that quietly but firmly underscores the humanness of everybody involved. Yes, even him.
That clarity extends to the movie’s coda, a small but telling moment. Our heroine, her decade-long mission accomplished, finally takes a breath and allows emotion to come flooding in, and, once again, Bigelow leaves the meaning up to us. Is it relief Maya feels for the vengeance she has so righteously served? Or despair at how little has actually changed?