ZERO DARK THIRTY doesn't open with the provocative imagery of 9/11, but simply the sounds of that fateful day. We hear frantic phone calls to emergency hotlines, as people inside the buildings become slowly aware of their fate. As the calls resonate in our minds, we see CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogating a prisoner on the location of Osama Bin Laden as another agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain) watches. Dan brutalizes the prisoner in every possible way - through sleep deprivation, waterboarding, stripping him down naked, pressure points, the whole smash. And he still will not talk. He still will not break.
It isn't until a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia that Maya gets the idea to question the prisoner about a possible name for a courier to Bin Laden. Sleep deprived, through simple misdirection and a police-style questioning straight out of LAW AND ORDER, the prisoner gives up a name - Abu Ahmed. And through that name, a pathway is opened up to Maya to the possible location of Osama Bin Laden. This all, of course, ends with the SEAL incursion to the compound outside of Abbotabad, and the killing of one of the most notorious criminals in American history.
I have no way of knowing how accurate ZERO DARK THIRTY is, even after all the news reports on the film and all the political fallout, but director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal certainly make the movie feel as real as possible. The verisimilitude of the movie is astounding - so much so that perhaps too many are trying to crack the movie instead of simply appreciating the work that Bigelow and Boal have done. This is Bigelow's ZODIAC - a story of an obsession so strong that it threatens to wipe out reason and sanity. Maya simply will not stop until Osama Bin Laden is captured or dead. And why? The movie wisely does not answer that - there are no moments of character exposition that explains her motivation. Did she know someone at the World Trade Center? Or the Pentagon? Instead of choosing the simple cliched route, Bigelow and Boal make Maya our center and our guide into this world, even though Jessica Chastain never lets us into the inner workings of Maya. We only see her through her work.
ZERO DARK THIRTY makes no judgments. It has no agendas (no matter how much its detractors would like to prove otherwise). It simply is. It is unflinching in its portrayal of torture, trusting the audience to bring their own morality to it. The movie doesn't have to point out to anyone that tourture is a heinous, terrible thing, and there are no soul-searching moments among the agents who perform it. And yet, ZERO DARK THIRTY also makes clear that the information that is gathered isn't through torture at all, although it can be argued that interrogating a prisoner experiencing sleep deprivation crosses a moral line. But the film leaves it to the audience to come to their own conclusions.
Some might come away from the movie thinking that torture helped get the information necessary to find Bin Laden, but the film never explicitly says that at all. For a few days afterwards, I thought it had, until I began thinking on it more. Torture happened, ZERO DARK THIRTY says, and whether or not you agree with our actions during that time, the film makes sure we understand the devastation to everyone involved in these acts. The film does not advocate, it simply shows, and it also shows that the real information didn't start coming in until the torture stopped. Whether or not the torture worked isn't simply handed down to the audience. ZERO DARK THIRTY does something terrifying instead - it forces us to our own conclusions. That's what great journalism does.
Jessica Chastain deserves all the accolades and more for her portrayal of Maya. Maya is singular in purpose, even as she experiences acts of terrorism first-hand, and loses friends along the way. Chastain gives Maya an exterior of toughness and complexity - while her motivations are clear, we aren't given simple explanations of who she is. Chastain puts it all in her performance, and she disappears in the role. Jason Clarke is also excellent as the CIA interrogator who over the years comes to realize the futility of his actions, and it's not done in a typical manner. Dan isn't given that Oscar moment where he breaks down and cries - these are men and women doing their jobs, and while their actions take their toll, the cast puts it in their eyes and not in histrionics. Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, and Kyle Chandler are all terrific.
Because of the movie's refusal to go the Hollywood route, at times ZERO DARK THIRTY can feel emotionally dry to audiences used to more cathartic cinema. But the wheels are always turning - this is one of the most intelligent pieces of cinema to come out of the studio system in many years. It trusts the audience to keep up, and when the victories come, we feel them along with the characters because we understand the losses and risks it took to get there. ZERO DARK THIRTY is as immersive as they come, throwing us into an unfamiliar world where good and evil are children's ideals and the truth is somewhere in between.
The final half-hour, with the SEAL Team raid on the Abbotabad compound, is as riveting as action cinema gets. It's shot in such a manner that we feel a part of the events, but it's not mere shakycam and first person point-of-view shots. There are no cliched standoffs here, no moments of cinematic pause. ZERO DARK THIRTY is smart, brave, captivating cinema. The film forces us as an audience to come up with our own ideas. As the events of the past 11 years have changed us as a nation, this film takes into account that there are no easy answers. It's rare that a film lays it all out there like this and has us pick up the pieces. This is what happened, ZERO DARK THIRTY says, and what we do with it is on us. It is urgent filmmaking, and Kathryn Bigelow has made a film that is not only important, but a cinematic miracle - ZERO DARK THIRTY assumes that we're all smart enough to take the journey. One of the best films of the year, without a doubt.