Kathryn Bigelow’s kill–bin Laden epic Zero Dark Thirty is the most neutral-seeming “America, Fuck Yeah!” picture ever made. In its narrative arc, it is barely distinct from a boneheaded right-wing revenge picture, but the vibe is cool, brisk, grown-up, packed with impressively real-sounding intel jargon. And the hero is no gun-toting macho man. She’s a CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a woman in a world in which men call the shots, metaphorically and literally. Presented with the movie’s liberal-pleasing feminist overlay, you root for her to compel the men to do what men would do naturally if they weren’t so constrained by modern technological and bureaucratic and constitutional hurdles: find the motherfucker and blow his fucking head off. As a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic. As a piece of cinema, it’s phenomenally gripping—an unholy masterwork.
The first masterstroke is the first thing you see—or, rather, don’t see. Under a black screen, the sounds of 9/11 build: a hubbub of confusion, reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Center, and then, most terribly, the voice of a woman crying out to a 911 operator who tries vainly to assure her she’ll be okay. She won’t be. That prologue looks like restraint—there are no sensationalistic images—but it’s cruel: The recordings are genuine. You want revenge so much it hurts, but you’ll have to live with the pain because the sonovabitch bastard Muslims who killed that poor woman are elusive, and when you catch them they won’t talk. The next scene, a brutal interrogation at a CIA “black site,” is unpleasant but not unwelcome. To paraphrase Dick Cheney, you sometimes have to go to the dark side, and the big, bearded Dan (Jason Clarke) has made the trip, telling a strung-up detainee, “When you lie to me, I hurt you,” and he does. Yeah, it sucks to have to torture people—sucks for them and sucks for us. (Waterboarding someone is no fun.) But as Dan explains to Maya, fresh off the plane from Washington, that terrorist “has to learn how helpless he is.”
There has been speculation that Maya was inspired by the same (covert) CIA agent as Claire Danes’s bipolar Carrie in Homeland. As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.” The parts and actresses could hardly be more different. Danes is a skin actor. She’s soft: You read her pores. Chastain is a muscle and tendons actor: You read the tension in her body. Watching Dan douse a screaming terrorist, she folds her arms tightly across her chest, her gaze jerking away involuntarily. But Maya is with the program. By the midpoint, she looks like one of those college kids at exam time, sleepless and sunless, drooping under the weight of all the info she’s cramming into her head, her words rushing out as if one extra clause will make the difference between Osama’s capture and escape. And by the end of Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain’s Maya is in a different physical sphere. There’s no longer doubt in her. Friends have died, she says, adding, “I believe I was spared so I can finish the job.” Who spared her? God? For this female ascetic, killing bin Laden has become a religious quest—a counter-jihad.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) don’t give Maya or anyone else a backstory, which is part of the movie’s cool: The characters are only seen in the context of their jobs. But they’re not without personality. Aside from Chastain and Clarke, who are riveting, Jennifer Ehle is a treat as a high-spirited operative who seems to be based on Jennifer Matthews, Mark Strong makes a forceful agency butt-kicker, and James Gandolfini slyly underplays the CIA director. Boal is good at reproducing CIA jargon: Even when I didn’t know what the hell the characters were saying, I nodded along, thoroughly psyched out. This is top-secret intelligence—just being in the room is a privilege. Boal depicts much of Maya’s job as a series of pitches, not dissimilar to those in Hollywood. There is always another professionally skeptical CIA bureaucrat to be sold on the probable whereabouts of bin Laden’s courier—and then he’ll have to sell his superior, who’ll have to sell the commander-in-chief.
Bigelow doesn’t need narrative clarity to generate terrific suspense. She’s a wizard at mixing streaky, middle-of-the-mêlée frames with stark establishing shots to give you your bearings. She saves the bravura stuff for the climax, when the Navy SEALs finally make their entrance. Their choppers glide through the dark mountains toward the sprinkling of buildings in Islamabad. Alexandre Desplat’s chord progressions are mysterious, suffused with awe. Night-vision goggles turn the silent compound green: The camera follows the seals through doors and up stairs, the only sound the bouncing of heavy equipment, the bleating of sheep, and then, after the firing begins, the sobbing of children. The carnage is quick and conclusive.