Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who first worked together on The Hurt Locker, were in the process of making a movie about the 2001 battle of Tora Bora and its unsuccessful attempt to capture Osama bin Laden when, almost a decade after the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden was found and killed in a village in Pakistan. As Bigelow told Entertainment Weekly, when she and Boal heard the news, “what we had been working on became history.” That’s a fantastic, perfect way to put it. It’s not just that their story became old news; it’s that they finally had a way to weave loose threads into a narrative that would become Zero Dark Thirty. The death of bin Laden was the thing they and we had been waiting for, the final beat in a story we’d been trying to tell for years. Other films that dealt even obliquely with terrorism in the wake of 9/11 were necessarily about the unsuccessful search for an ending, and about how we could do nothing except relive a tragedy. Now, though, there could be an end point. There could be a physical goal, a piece of tangible evidence to offer up at the end of the story, a thing at which we could point and say, “We did this.”
What Zero Dark Thirty does so brilliantly, though — and this is a brilliant film in so many ways, big and small — is to show how empty such promises can be. No story ever ends, not really, and real life certainly doesn’t offer the kind of closure we crave. Osama bin Laden in a body bag isn’t the end, not for the men who killed him or the country that hunted him down. It’s not even a big moment when it finally happens. It’s codewords on the radio and a long trip home; it’s research and hard drives and looking for whatever’s next; it’s sitting alone and crying because you spent 12 years doing something that defined you, and now it’s over, and all you can think about are the awful things you did to get here and how you can’t imagine what you’ve become. It’s circles so big you can’t see the other side. Catharsis isn’t winning, it’s just knowing you survived.
Bigelow and Boal do a phenomenal job here distilling a decade-long manhunt into a methodical political thriller, but it’s one that uses politics as its setting, not its message. The men and women who make up the CIA task forces at the heart of the film seem only tangentially concerned with primaries or elections, and their tactics and plans are focused only on solving the problem at hand and avoiding culpability for errors. To attempt to reduce the film to a political argument or op-ed column is to miss its nuances and to ignore its mission and power as cinema. The film is based on true events, but it communicates in emotion as much as it does fact, and its duty (if it has one) is to tell as honest a story as possible with as much truth as allowable. Much has been made in the press of the film’s depiction of torture, but Bigelow directs those scenes with a frankness and clarity that eschew sermonizing. Zero Dark Thirty is brave precisely because its central characters are flawed, petty, cruel people willing to do brutal things to achieve often nebulous goals. Its protagonist, a CIA field agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain), is obsessive and ruthless in her pursuit of terrorist leaders, standing patiently by while an operative named Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures a detainee. “When you lie to me, I hurt you,” Dan says to the man before waterboarding him, or stripping him, or forcing him into a small wooden box. At another point in the years-long manhunt, Maya and others watch then-Senator Obama talking on TV about how the United States doesn’t torture people. They don’t react one way or the other, though it’s not like they don’t know what they did, or what it cost them publicly (and maybe spiritually). Even the end of what’s euphemistically called “the detainee program” is seen as little more than a logistical hurdle, and Dan at one point advises Maya, “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” Maya’s our protagonist and our way into the story’s world, but she’s anything but likable, especially after we see her so coolly approve (and even encourage) “enhanced interrogation.” We see her act, and we wonder how far she’ll go.
That’s what the film is really about: consequence. Bigelow expertly shows these vengeances, these utter horrors, that people are capable of visiting each other, and how they’re part of a longer series of events with no beginning or end in sight. Her direction and sense of story, pacing, and flow are phenomenal from top to bottom, and Boal’s script makes the most of minor character details or dialogue to show the passage of time. It’s no small feat to boil so many years into so few minutes, but they make it work. When Maya arrives at her first black site at the beginning of the film, she butts heads with a testy agent named Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), but subsequent scenes at different periods show them warming, working together, and finally inhabiting that intimate space known only to people whose lives are joined by some cause they can’t relinquish. Similarly, Bigelow uses title cards to introduce new sections of the film, letting them act as chapter stops that let you orient yourself in the story while learning what each section will focus on. (Some are plain and direct, like “The Meeting,” while others loom with silent dread of what’s to come, like “Human Error.”)
There are little moments, too, that speak to the filmmakers’ skill. At one point, we see a CIA agent’s work computer and are given a glimpse of the desktop wallpaper: it’s a photo of a colleague killed in the field. What’s amazing about this detail, and what’s made it stick with me for weeks, is that Bigelow used it to flesh out a character in the most realistic way possible and didn’t resort to phony manipulation. She doesn’t linger on the image after the character leaves the desk, or use it as a callback later on (in word or image), or telegraph it as some reason for the character’s actions. It’s never mentioned again. Bigelow doesn’t want to telegraph cause and effect, and she sure doesn’t want to reduce a special agent’s pursuit of a terrorist to a vendetta for a friend. Such clumsy handling would turn this into something small, would risk making it a television procedural and not a grand drama about damnation. As it is, we get a fantastic touch of real emotion, a solid expansion of character and emotion, and a moment that testifies to the level of commitment Bigelow brings to every aspect of the film.
Chastain’s work as Maya could be the best thing she’s ever done. She wears her fatigue in her face and shoulders, and she anchors the film with a performance that balances obsession with a sad, unflinching kind of humanity. Bigelow’s got a deep bench, too: Kyle Chandler as a prickly, short-sighted bureaucrat; Clarke as the queasily charming bruiser; Ehle as an agent who works hard to hide just how tender she can be. They all work together perfectly, though it’s Chastain that carries the show.
Bigelow is in top form here, though. The film’s final section covers the SEAL team assault on the compound housing bin Laden, and it’s masterful. Bigelow maintains perfect awareness of the space and geography of the sequence even in almost total darkness, which is incredibly hard to do, and she wisely drops the score and focuses solely on the quiet, deadly actions of the men on the ground. It’s expertly done in every way, and its depiction of furtive battles against an often invisible enemy recall some of the best moments of The Hurt Locker. It’s not a gung-ho, celebratory thing, either. Far from it. It’s a tense, often uncomfortable, jaw-dropping sequence that deals bluntly with the human cost of conflict.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Dan says at one point. He’s talking with Maya and a superior about the huge gaps in their knowledge, and about their inability to find their way out of the weeds, but his statement encapsulates the worry and confusion that define these people during the long, messy, isolating chase for a man they half-believe to be dead. He’s spinning his wheels, and he and everyone else are often too close to the problem to see its solutions. Bigelow deftly captures what it means for these people to be stuck in recursive, self-fulfilling patterns, and how easily rule and right can disappear when you let yourself believe that your cause is greater than all others. Zero Dark Thirty is about so many things, but its core is all about cost, and doubt, and the weight of trying to do what’s right when you can’t remember what that means. We did this. Now we have to make it make sense.