In keeping with their anti-heroic impulses, Bigelow and Boal begin their film in the mid-2000’s in the midst of a torture session that places its sympathy squarely with the man being tortured. The goons doing the deeds are faceless automatons, but he’s naked and vulnerable, strung up from the ceiling and the walls in stress positions. He’s not sneering at his infidel enemies, but pleading with them. We don’t see what this man (Reda Kateb) did before being captured, only what is being done to him. His chief interrogators, grizzled vet Dan (Jason Clarke) and intense new transfer Maya (Jessica Chastain), employ their torture tactics and their manipulations on him. At one point, he’s given a cup of tea and clutches it tightly to his chest, like it’s the only thing he owns in the world. Against his suffering are the implacable agents, repaying alleged crimes with real violence. Maya is the film’s primary focus, and she spends endless hours in front of screens, watching torture session after torture session and hunting for some valuable nugget in this pile of misery. She takes the viewer on a horrific global tour of CIA black sites, from Afghanistan to Egypt to a container ship in Poland, all while attacks continue to be carried out in London and the CIA itself is played as a fool.
As the War on Terror persists into a new administration and shifts focus to lone wolves and away from Al Qaeda’s disintegrating organization, Maya remains steadfast. A successful operation in Pakistan is undercut by a direct attack on her, forcing her out of the field and back to Langley. Though this places her out of the action, it puts her in direct contact with decision makers, the kinds of people who can pull the trigger on her bone-deep belief that Bin Laden is hiding out in plain sight in a Pakistani suburb. She ultimately and almost single-handedly convinces the inner circle of the Obama security apparatus to execute her plan, resulting in a minute-by-minute recreation of the famous Seal Team 6 raid. Bigelow is on her own level as the film reaches its conclusion, mapping out a complex operation that stays legible despite being filmed at night and instilling a layer of dread and tension into an event that everyone knows the outcome to. She and Boal save their biggest fireworks for the film’s closing shots, turning over their hole cards as Alexandre Desplat’s score plucks its haunting strings.
From 2011 through 2015, Chastain was on a tear through arthouse and awards cinema. Working with directors as varied as Terence Malick and Guillermo del Toro, she laid claim to being one of the best actors in her age group. Zero Dark Thirty is likely the most iconic of her considerable career thanks to how intensely the film focuses on her. Bigelow’s iconic framing of Maya coming out of a long dark tunnel is easily imagined, as is the fire in some of her rageful explosions at what she perceives as bureaucratic foot-dragging. If the character was just an audience surrogate through the CIA and the upper echelons of the government, however, she wouldn’t be nearly as memorable. Maya is ultimately proven correct, but it’s everything in between her introduction and the credits that makes her such a compelling figurehead of the War on Terror. She’s a zealous torturer, moreso than the wild-bearded Dan who looks one career move away from being a Blackwater mercenary. She radiates certainty in an organization that, based on very recent history, should know better. Ultimately, on the day of her greatest triumph, Desplat’s score reads as mournful, like her life may as well be just as over as the corpse she’s tasked with identifying. Chastain plays her as joyless and empty, an avatar of vengeance spun up and let loose because… the country can’t think of any other meaningful direction to point her in. Her Maya is the blinkered and ultimately perfect vessel to lead the viewer through a black period of American history, because, like the country she works for, she’s always sure she’s right.
Supporting Chastain is a cavalcade of pros who make the most of whatever time they’re allowed. Clarke is initially a feral beast, or at least the carefully cultivated image of one. Like Maya, he also lands back at Langley, and the comparison is between a chained-up junkyard cur and a neutered lap dog, both of which are within Clarke’s considerable wheelhouse. Maya’s contemporary, played by Jennifer Ehle, is blinkered even by Maya’s standards. Ehle’s gentility and aura of competence that she so ably flexed the year before in Contagion transfer over, but it’s not so blinding as to obscure her obvious oversights and misplaced assumptions. Kateb is can’t-look-away compelling in his harrowing couple of scenes. As two of the most powerful men in the country, Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini are icily credible, careful never to tip what they’re thinking.
The Report is the true accounting of this time period based on who’s objecting to it i.e. the people who have something to lose if it is indeed accurate. Zero Dark Thirty sparked few such complaints, and while it does draw a controversial and hotly contested line between torture and Abbottabad, the film has better sense than those crass crowds celebrating in the streets on May 2, 2011. Journalist Mark Bowden wrote an essay about Zero Dark Thirty, stating that the efficacy of torture is a vital question, but the final decision doesn’t rest on it, settled though it may be (it doesn’t). The decision of whether or not the US should torture anyone in its custody is a self-evident one, regardless of torture’s efficacy. Zero Dark Thirty judges its characters to be shells, its posturing as useless, and all of its plot and chronology to be utterly pointless and degrading. We devalued ourselves so we could dump a body in an ocean. The dead stayed dead, and terrorism continued, largely out of a continuation of the US’s awful decision-making. While her sources thought they were pitching her an ode, Bigelow composed an elegy. A-