“Zero Dark Thirty” runs a bit shy of three hours, which is both its strength and its weakness. This is really three stories in one movie, all of them tied together by the central figure of Maya, a CIA agent, who is based on an actual person still undercover. As superbly realized by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, Maya is a compelling figure, despite the movie’s all but total omission of details of her personal life.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter (and co-producer) Mark Boal focus on the decade-long, frustrating, tedious, but ultimately successful hunt for Osama Bin Laden, to the exclusion of character development and, at points, even the identity of some critical people in that mission—the “little people who make big things happen” as one key character says. During the movie’s long middle portion, which jumps back and forth between locations around the world, some viewers may get lost in the maze: there are over 100 speaking characters not usually identified, and the film’s structure mirrors the shifting, confusing nature of the hunt itself. Though the movie is up for a film editing Oscar, some more judicious cutting or compressing in this two-hour section would have made it tighter, more audience-friendly, even though the glimpse of the CIA’s “trade craft” is intriguing.
But the first and last portions are the ones that have sparked the most discussion, pro and con. After a dramatic opening in which we watch a dark screen while hearing the anguished, terrified voices of callers during the 9/11 catastrophe, the film jumps two years forward to an “enhanced interrogation” site in Pakistan, where Dan (Jason Clarke) is torturing a “detainee” (Reda Kateb) while newcomer Maya watches. Chastain shows us Maya’s initial misgivings about the grueling process she witnesses, but she does so without going overboard. Indeed, Chastain’s performance—for which she won a Golden Globe award—understates Maya’s emotions throughout, with some key exceptions. Watching Maya change over time as her heroic obsession dominates her life is an absorbing experience.
The torture scenes have become the focus for criticism, as they may be taken to imply that this form of interrogation eventually led to finding bin Laden. (Sen. John McCain, among others has vigorously disputed this.) By today’s loose movie standards, they are less egregious than they might have been (think “Chainsaw Massacre” or the “Saw” series), but they do make the point about the ruthlessness of the practice. Clarke is excellent here and throughout, especially when he shows the human cost to the torturer. And Jennifer Ehle and Mark Strong are particularly engaging as Maya’s colleague and supervisor, with each of whom she has a complex relationship.
The last segment, showing the payoff to the search, is perhaps the most effective in purely cinematic terms. Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser shoot much of it in the green tints of night vision lenses, and her decision to eschew Alexandre Desplat’s background music here renders it that much more grippingly realistic. Despite knowing the outcome, we are held in suspense as the SEALs run into and overcome obstacles to their mission. In fact, the shooting of bin Laden is almost anticlimactic. There is more drama in the arrival and identification of the body and in Maya’s return, alone in a cavernous transport plane to—we don’t know where.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is appropriately rated “R” for strong violence and language: its historical importance notwithstanding, it is not for children. Bigelow was inexplicably excluded from the Best Director nominees, though the film garnered numerous other nominations, including one for Best Picture. Like “The Hurt Locker,” for which she did win an Oscar, this film will not be to everybody’s tastes, as it is clear-eyed about the methods and results of war, however defined or wherever conducted. But it is that all-too-rare treat, a well made and acted film about an important and controversial subject and, thus, well worth seeing.