By Gary Dowell
With the riveting, compelling, and unshakably haunting Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow proves her historic Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker was no fluke. She takes the heightened realism of that movie one step further here, tapping into the cinema verité feel of The Battle of Algiers for a dramatic retelling of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden.
After a wrenching opening sequence of audio from 9/11 played against a black background, the movie proper begins with an extended, unnerving interrogation sequence (already a mini-controversy in and of itself) and concludes with a tense 40-minute real-time recreation of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in suburban Pakistan; in between is something akin to a crisp espionage procedural, anchored by a chameleon-like performance from the ubiquitous and often bland Jessica Chastain as a CIA operative named Maya. She’s the quintessential manhunter: obsessive, stubborn, and single-minded.
Maya (and the viewer) is thrown into the deep end from the get-go, arriving at a CIA black site in 2003, where veteran colleague Dan (the superbly mercurial Jason Clarke, equal parts charming and terrifying) is applying “enhanced interrogation techniques” to a detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb, A Prophet). It’s a sequence that became a tempest in a teapot before the movie went into wide release; dismissed as unnecessary by some and as pro-torture statement by others. In truth, the movie suggests quite the opposite, as it spends the better part of two hours on Maya’s meticulous, painstaking, and dogged sifting through leads and dead-ends over the course of years, usually without the support of her superiors (Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong), before they finally pan out.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) put forth a clinical, matter-of-fact re-telling of recent events, with the traditional Hollywood conventions wisely tossed aside. There are no trite and unnecessary subplots, no clichéd back stories; all we know is what we’re given onscreen, which is kept lean and focused.
In Maya, Boal and Chastain give us a flawed yet strong and confident heroine, similar to Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison minus the jazz freak-outs and ugly crying. Her unflagging determination as she relentlessly pursues the one lead she believes in takes on an air of zealotry, and her devotion leaves little room in her life for, well, a life. The toll the job takes on her and her colleagues is a heavy one.
Much the way Ben Affleck did with Argo, Bigelow succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seats during the climax even though we already know how it’s going to end. The devil — or, in this case, the genius — is in the details, the hows and whys that led the operation to its conclusion. Such is the build-up and the execution by that the tension is vice-grip tight, and when it’s over we feel that same sense of relief we felt a year-and-a-half ago.