Starring Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton. Written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. 14A. 157 min. Opens Jan. 11.
Like her Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a brilliantly well-made and ideologically slippery post-9/11 war movie. And its heroine is an obsessive-compulsive type, like the earlier film’s fear-junkie bomb-disposal expert. Introduced shrinking in the shadows as a colleague tries to drag a confession out of a physically diminished terror suspect, Maya (Jessica Chastain) emerges as the pathologically driven point-woman in the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The search is divided into a series of self-contained “chapters” that alternate between keyboard-clicking boredom and nerve-shredding field work. Bigelow deftly juggles the shifting locations and large ensemble of supporting characters—including the terrific Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s best friend—while maintaining a realistic high-tech texture.
There’s also a lot to chew on below the surface, including the inescapable issue of how the film presents torture. The overriding question is whether the clinical, detached presentation of waterboarding is intended as an endorsement or a critique. The film’s detractors claim that screenwriter Mark Boal has played fast and loose with the truth by suggesting that such “enhanced interrogation” tactics yielded key intelligence in the operation that led to bin Laden’s discovery and execution.
But even if the film gradually draws a zig-zagging line from the initial interrogation of a bin Laden associate to the final castle-storming set-piece, it’s hardly a heroic arc. Instead, the film demonstrates how the sheer proliferation of painstakingly gathered information—names, dates, locations—seems to grind Maya down until she’s just a blunt instrument in search of a target.
Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t deny her eventual catharsis, but it doesn’t exalt it, either. While the mission is accomplished, the true nature of the team’s achievement is as unclear as the expression on Maya’s face in a key late shot set in a massive cargo plane. There’s relief and triumph there, to be sure, yet she also looks puzzled, as if unsure what to do next. It’s a suggestive image of a hunter suddenly left without a quarry—and maybe a country that’s locked and loaded with no place to go.