From the first scenes of “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates why she is such a formidable filmmaker, as adept with human emotion as with visceral, pulse-quickening action. Starting with an opening sequence that consists of a blank screen and an audio track of the anguished 911 calls of people caught in the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Bigelow cuts unceremoniously to a squalid prison two years later, where a CIA official is mercilessly torturing a detainee.
It’s this harrowing scene — during which an al-Qaida associate is waterboarded — that has put Bigelow and “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter Mark Boal in the middle of a bizarre political firestorm, with critics from all sides accusing them of distorting the role torture played in locating Osama bin Laden. But it’s also during this sequence that Bigelow — who won an Oscar for directing the 2009 Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker” — unequivocally establishes her command presence as a filmmaker.
Having profoundly evoked the tone of fear and loss that pervades and contextualizes all that comes after, within a few scant minutes Bigelow signals that she will not turn away from the most unsavory aspects of the history she’s chronicling and that she will lead viewers through a gnarly, complicated story with authority, flinty composure, keen storytelling instincts and unmatched technical chops.
Politicians looking for sanctimonious Monday-morning moralizing on the war on terror will be disappointed by “Zero Dark Thirty.” So will partisan stakeholders wishing for a proxy policy debate. But anyone who appreciates movies at their most engrossing, taut and well-crafted will be supremely rewarded by a film that makes a 10-year bureaucratic slog utterly riveting and, in its final half-hour, injects an astonishing degree of tension and suspense into a Navy SEAL raid, the outcome of which is universally known.
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Although Boal famously based his script on first-hand interviews with military and intelligence officials who took part in the search for bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” is best appreciated not as journalism but as entertainment, an old-fashioned espionage thriller and police procedural that possesses the added frisson of hewing closely — but not literally — to real-life events.
Our guide is a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young agency recruit who arrives in Pakistan relatively green but whose obsession with tracking down bin Laden eventually takes on the contours of a holy mission.
Maya, played by Chastain with impressive resolve, becomes known for mouthing off to her superiors, especially her station chief in Islamabad (played by Kyle Chandler) and, later, to Leon Panetta (one of the film’s few moments of humor is Bigelow’s decision to cast James Gandolfini — Tony Soprano himself! — as the director of central intelligence).
It happens that Maya’s character coincides closely with a real-life CIA operative who was deeply involved in the search for bin Laden. But she plays an important structural role in the film, not just as the audience’s surrogate through a labyrinthine collection of facts, figures, locations and characters, but as the personification of the intelligence and military personnel who, through dint of perseverance and determination, finally got their man.
And no, “Zero Dark Thirty” does not make a case that torture led directly to a pivotal lead in getting bin Laden; if anything it shows that shoe-leather tradecraft and enlisting cooperation — through bluffing, generous treatment and outright bribery — played far more productive roles in the hunt.
“Here’s to the big breaks, and the little people that make ’em happen,” says Maya’s fellow analyst Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), a sentiment that, more than any, sums up “Zero Dark Thirty’s” chief ethos.
Bigelow has done an outstanding job bringing that faceless population to life, enlisting a cast of charismatic young actors to bring memorable verve to otherwise dry proceedings — including Jason Clarke as a CIA field agent, Mark Strong as a CIA official, Stephen Dillane as a White House security adviser, and Chris Pratt and Joel and Nash Edgerton as the SEAL operators who raided the compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, and, a half-hour later, killed Osama bin Laden.
Bigelow stages that sequence in virtual real time, mostly with night-vision optics, lending it a breathtaking air of verisimilitude. But even more awe-inspiring are the scenes that lead up to the raid, as a group of CIA employees and contractors track the courier who ultimately leads them to Abbottabad, a dizzying collection of street scenes that vividly convey the sheer chaos and magnitude of the haystack that hid such an all-important needle.
In a few revealing flourishes, Bigelow indicates that luck, too, played a role in that search: A black cat crosses the path just before the fatal ambush at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan; later, a game of horseshoes and a swiftly intercepted football serve as more hopeful auguries.
But by and large, “Zero Dark Thirty” dispenses with sentimentality and speculation, portraying the final mission not with triumphalist zeal or rank emotionalism but with a reserved, even mournful sense of ambivalence. Just as Bigelow trusts filmgoers to think critically about American policy and the war on terror without her editorializing, she leaves it to us to figure out what killing bin Laden really meant — the ends, the means and all those unresolved data points in between that still multiply exponentially to this day.