Kathryn Bigelow, who’d won an Oscar for directing the soldier drama “The Hurt Locker,” and Mark Boal, who’d won an Oscar for writing it, were already collaborating on a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden when history provided them with a more satisfying ending than the one they had. The terrorist leader’s death didn’t necessitate a total rewrite, though. “Zero Dark Thirty” remains largely about the manhunt: the CIA’s methodical, day-to-day, year-to-year sifting of intelligence, tips, and hunches. It culminates in a startlingly matter-of-fact depiction of the SEALs’ daring midnight raid on bin Laden’s compound, which feels like a natural extension of the story rather than a tacked-on conclusion. You would never know that the project began life with a totally different third act.
This is a procedural, free of extraneous emotion and almost clinical in its recitation of the series of events that led to bin Laden’s demise. We’re spared the images of September 11th — audio recordings of 911 calls, played over a black screen, set the stage instead — and indeed of just about anything that might artificially manipulate our emotions. Our protagonist, a CIA analyst named Maya (a steely Jessica Chastain), is so single-minded she doesn’t have a backstory, or even a last name. She isn’t here to fool around, and neither is the movie.
Nor is the movie here to make any bold political or moral pronouncements. No politicians are given credit or blame for anything; neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama (the film spans both their presidencies) is mentioned in anything more than passing remarks. When Maya and her CIA colleagues are shown waterboarding detainees, it’s presented with the same detachment as everything else, the film neither openly condemning nor condoning the practice. The process of narrowing down the search for bin Laden is so labyrinthine, and there are so many false leads and dead ends, that by the time the movie was over, I honestly couldn’t remember if the information gleaned through torture had turned out to be accurate or not. The film doesn’t underscore the point either way.
I’ve probably made the film sound more dour than it is. Grim, sometimes, yes. But it works as entertainment, too: even without getting a Hollywood makeover, the story has inherent drama, suspense, and thrills, which Bigelow lets arise naturally. The huge cast includes many familiar faces (Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Stephen Dillane, John Barrowman, Frank Grillo), and they are sometimes permitted to say improbable but awesome things like “I want targets. Do your f****** job. Bring me people to kill.” And even knowing how it’s going to end, the sequence at the bin Laden compound is extraordinarily tense.
Bigelow and Boal’s choice to forgo the kind of character details that usually add color to a movie like this (a sweetheart back home, a past mistake that haunts the protagonist, or whatever) makes it hard to connect with the film emotionally. I wonder what the reaction would be from an audience member with no knowledge of 9/11, no built-in personal link to the material. But at the same time, this no-frills approach helps us view the story clearly, without filters. We see things through Maya’s eyes; Maya, in turn, represents America: resourceful, tenacious, willing to do whatever is necessary (but not completely ruthless), occasionally wrong but ultimately right, and damn good at what she does. She’s relieved and satisfied when the mission is accomplished, but she’s not sure where to go next.
B+ (2 hrs., 37 min.; )