With The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal made a compelling case for why they’re two of our generation’s most important filmmakers. With Zero Dark Thirty, easily one of the year’s best films, their reputations may finally be cemented. Twice now they’ve collaborated on war movies based on fact, and in both cases, their shared cinematic vision never once devolved into meaningless action thriller clichés or senseless carnage. They’re both primarily interested in developing their characters, in delving into the psyches of singularly-minded people who intentionally put themselves in harm’s way. We in the audience can freely speculate on where their dangerous behaviors stem from, although a definitive, concrete reason remains elusive – perhaps even to the characters themselves.
The subject of Zero Dark Thirty is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a newly recruited CIA analyst who, over the course of a decade, becomes the driving force behind the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Initially, she’s a mere observer; during the opening scene, which takes place in 2002, she bears witness to a suspected terrorist being brutally interrogated at a CIA black site in the Middle East. As the years progress, however, she begins to take part in the interrogation process. She doesn’t do the dirty physical work, though. That’s left to Dan (Jason Clarke), who doesn’t necessarily enjoy his job but understands that he’s good at it. She does, however, learn the art of psychological and verbal manipulation, which typically comes in the form of direct questions and threats. Several years later, when one of her colleagues is killed in a terrorist bombing, Maya’s already strong resolve to track down Al Qaeda fundamentalists dramatically escalates into an all-consuming obsession.
But I’m making her sound like an unhinged vigilante. In several ways, she’s exactly like Sergeant William James of The Hurt Locker, whose entire life was defined by diffusing bombs in war zones; she’s fully aware that terrorists need to be stopped, and because she’s an expert at following trails and piecing together clues, to say nothing of the fact that no one else is as tenacious, she can see to it that they are stopped. It comes, of course, at the expense of a personal life, although I don’t think she sees that as an obstacle, since I don’t believe she would know how to handle a personal life. Her real obstacles are politicians and officials, especially after a series of false leads and attacks have shifted the focus away from bin Laden. Quite simply, her mission has lost its geopolitical importance.
In 2010, a new trail, uncovered quite by accident, leads to the discovery of a compound in a middle-class neighborhood of Abbottabad, Pakistan. It’s uncertain whether or not bin Laden is residing within, although surveillance photos make it obvious that it was built to intentionally keep specific occupants out of view. It was also suspicious that the compound had no internet or landline telephone service, and that all garbage was burned on site rather than set out to be collected. Maya, who firmly believes that bin Laden is has finally been found, would be content to have a bomb dropped on the compound and be done with it. But of course, it doesn’t work that way. There needs to be a military task force. Here enters a team of Navy SEALs whose leader, Patrick (Joel Edgerton), became convinced of the mission’s importance strictly because of Maya’s confidence.
It’s at this point the film transitions into a first-rate, nail-biting thriller. This is not to suggest it devolves into an action-packed stunt spectacular, which would have been fatal to this material; the final scenes utilize simple yet effective techniques to keep the audience in suspense, including deep shadows, long stretches of silence, and sudden bursts of gunfire. Some of the most chilling shots are shown from the perspective of the SEALs, specifically through their night-vision goggles; the world exists in dim, muddy shades of green, and we can clearly see the beams of their laser guides darting around. In a lesser film, the actual shooting death of bin Laden would be an overly dramatized moment of victory, the shots reduced to slow motion, the soundtrack holding its breath before crescendoing into a sweeping moment of drama. Bigelow is much more tactful than that. It’s treated as just another moment.
In an effort to cool some of the heated controversy surrounding the film, including accusations of partisanship, access to classified information, and being pro-torture, I will argue that Zero Dark Thirty isn’t really about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. At heart, it’s about obsession and the emotional toll it can take. For Maya, the mission to locate and assassinate bin Laden became her driving force. Nothing else in her life mattered. Life itself didn’t matter. When he finally is shot dead, we’re left to ponder her state of mind, despite her outward display of overwhelmed tears. Is this a victory for America, or a personal loss? Because her purpose was so narrow in scope, one gets the sense that she now has nothing left. Her only hope may be the emergence of a new terrorist leader.