I told you I’d see it eventually.
Once in a long while, a fresh-from-the-headlines movie — like All the President’s Men or United 93 — fuses journalism, procedural high drama, and the oxygenated atmosphere of a thriller into a new version of history written with lightning.
Zero Dark Thirty is that movie.
Along with that, Zero Dark Thirty is the best movie of 2012. That’s not an attempt at hyperbole. Simply put, nothing else that came out in 2012 can top this movie. It needs to be seen.
The film opens in complete silence and blackness before we hear a few minutes of radio calls from the 9/11 terrorist attack. Two years later, the search for the man who ordered the attack has brought Jessica Chastain’s CIA operative Maya to Pakistan to go through all the intel about Bin Laden’s associates. Her first experience is watching her burly colleague Dan working over an informant using various torture techniques to try to find out what he knows.
This is 2003 and it will be seven long hard years of Maya diligently working the case and going through whatever information they can get from prisoners and informants along with a small group under the guidance of Kyle Chandler’s supervisor in charge of the Pakistan ops. As much as he tries to accommodate all of Maya’s requests, once word gets out about the torture techniques used to get information, he takes the fall, leaving her as the most senior agent on the mission.
It’s frankly incredible that, in the middle of such a complicated story, Zero Dark Thirty presents such a complex character in Maya, a tough woman in an impossible job who sidesteps every imaginable possible cliche. Everything about her, from the way she wears a scarf over her head when interrogating a detainee to the false smiles she gives to put powerful men at ease, speaks to her unusual position as a woman in the Middle East, but that contrast never becomes text, just another fascinating layer in a story with no simple conclusions.
Maya embodies both of things perfectly, though it takes a while to see it; we first meet her as a silent, shocked witness to a CIA agent as he tortures an al-Qaeda detainee, derisively calling him “bro” and promising “If you lie to me, I will hurt you.” With her delicate features and flowing red hair Maya looks out of place in the dingy torture chamber, but she knows what she’s doing; when the detainee begs her for mercy, she refuses, setting the tone for her tough and unrelenting character as well as the movie’s attitude toward torture. Bigelow shoots the torture scenes in grim, uncomfortable detail, but she also allows that such intense interrogation leads to a key piece of information that helps Maya hunt down bin Laden. Though the film deals with incredibly politicized topics, its only bias is toward the devoted CIA agents who were willing to do absolutely anything to find their man.
Not all of the characters around her are equally as complex– Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau and Joel Edgerton are just a few of the big names who are gone as soon as they arrive– but Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini and especially Jason Clarke all make their impact, though all somewhat overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Chastian. It’s her movie.
Director Kathryn Bigelow stages the deadly raid on the compound for maximum realism, which gives the film a classic thriller climax that is also, in its shockingly low-key way, almost an anti-thriller climax. The Navy SEALs blow open the doors, then inch, floor by floor, through the darkness, where they strafe Osama’s assistants and wives — and it’s all staged with a calm that mirrors the no-sweat, strictly-business demeanor of the SEALs themselves. They’re soldiers doing their jobs, and with awesome bravery, but Zero Dark Thirty is really a gripping salute to the desk warrior who spent not minutes but years going in for the kill.