The killing of Usama bin Laden is widely regarded as the United States’ biggest foreign policy triumph since the Cold War, so when the inevitable film about how the C.I.A. accomplished the heroic task was announced, it was reasonable to dread that the result would be blindingly patriotic and full of phony climaxes. I pictured an action-packed Michael Bay production, at which mass audiences would cheer whenever American intelligence (at Obama’s direction, not Bush’s) discovered a new lead.
Thankfully, “Zero Dark Thirty” couldn’t be less of a hollow propaganda film, nor is it an equally cringe-inducing Hollywood critique of Bush-era policies. Meticulously written and directed by Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, respectively, it’s as balanced and objective as a two-and-a-half-hour dramatization of the hunt for bin Laden could possibly be. Boal and Bigelow aren’t interested in big speeches—only one moment could even remotely be characterized as such—or political commentary of their own. The filmmakers’ sole objective, fulfilled with flying colors, is to do the story justice.
Doing the story justice does not mean, as select critics have argued, providing a 100-percent accurate depiction of historical events. Bigelow and Boal’s primary deviation from the record is that they portray the search for bin Laden as the crusade of one particular C.I.A. analyst, Jessica Chastain’s Maya, who functions as a composite of her numerous real-life counterparts. Maya was a necessary invention for the filmmakers to condense the material to feature-length, to be able to show the nitty-gritty of how bin Laden was found without getting caught up in dozens of character introductions. Further, even if they had attempted a more comprehensive portrait of the operation, it wouldn’t have been any more historically definitive, due to the number of key details that remain classified.
As is, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a remarkably concise journey from the early days of post-9/11 intelligence-gathering through the infamous 2011 Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound. Bigelow provides the audience a fly-on-the-wall view of Maya’s daily quest to catch the al-Qaeda leader, relegating the events we usually associate with the War on Terror (the London bombings, the Times Square bomb plot, etc.) to television screens in the background.
The film begins two years after 9/11, which we’re briefly reminded of in a harrowing opening of the emergency calls over a black screen. Maya arrives at a C.I.A. black site in the Middle East, where she watches colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) waterboard a terrorist financier (Reda Kateb). These scenes have dominated press accounts of the movie, as select Senators and left-wing commentators have argued that the scenes reflect a “pro-torture” point-of-view. Objective observers will recognize, however, that they do not. Bigelow depicts the procedure of waterboarding in detail and provides ammunition for both sides of the debate, conveying that some useful information came from “enhanced interrogation” (specifically, a name), but that such practices also produced false intelligence and that there may have been other ways to go about getting the good stuff. Bigelow’s directorial m.o. is not to judge the morality of “enhanced interrogation,” but to honestly portray it so that the viewer can do so.
The name that the waterboarded prisoner provides—not during waterboarding, but an exceptionally crafty verbal interrogation months later, with the threat of waterboarding, mind you—eventually proves valuable in identifying the courier that led the C.I.A. to bin Laden’s compound. But it leads nowhere for years, as the C.I.A. experiences one setback after another, including the tragic suicide-bombing at Camp Chapman, Afghanistan by a Jordanian doctor who was supposed to be a promising al-Qaeda mole. A less adept filmmaker might have grazed over this period of history because little traceable to bin Laden’s death happened, but not Bigelow. She leverages this passage to show what a thankless job intelligence-gathering often is, a perpetual cycle of trial and error. Coupled with her depiction of the bureaucracy that Maya has to contend with once she has a fresh lead on bin Laden’s courier, Bigelow’s chronicle of the frustrating period from 2004 to 2009 illuminates what C.I.A. analysts went through in the search.
While the film’s pace is never anything less than breakneck during the above period—even though the quest to get bin Laden doesn’t advance, a lot still happens—the film certainly gains a sense of forward momentum once Maya and company discover the courier. The mere knowledge that this was the lead that led to bin Laden’s killing provides the viewer with a wave of adrenaline as they watch the man tracked to the Abottabad compound. This marks the beginning of the film’s riveting third-act transformation from a mostly cerebral exercise to a more primally exciting one.
That Bigelow is able to make the planning and execution of the raid a suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat experience, despite the audience’s prior knowledge of what happened, is a testament to her immense skill as an action filmmaker (remember, this is the woman who not only directed “The Hurt Locker,” but “Point Break”). Taking full advantage of Greig Fraser’s shadowy nighttime cinematography and a real-life, built-to-spec clone of the compound, Bigelow provides a you-are-there feel as the SEALs (well-played by Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, and others) take care of business. That the sequence culminates in the most uplifting ending of the year is just icing on the cake.
As much as “Zero Dark Thirty” is Bigelow’s film—an auteur work if I’ve ever seen one—I would be remiss not to provide due credit to Jessica Chastain, who transcends the inherent limitations of a character conceived chiefly as a conduit for plot advancement. While a composite of many individuals, Maya is a fully realized woman, mostly thanks to Chastain. There isn’t time for any backstory on the character, nor would it be appropriate, but the actress uses every reaction shot she’s allowed to flesh out Maya as a human being. Her eyes and face tell a story of their own, initially of skepticism, but later, of strength and heroism. This genre of film is conducive to line-reading-driven performances, but Chastain is above that, finding subtle ways to bring nuance to Maya in every situation.
Thus, “Zero Dark Thirty” emerges as the best film about this topic that anyone could have hoped for. Given all the reasons that viewers had to doubt it would work—the recency of the events, the political noise surrounding them, the breadth of the material—this is no small achievement. Unlike the propaganda film that never was, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a motion picture that Americans can truly rally around.