Zero Dark Thirty, like the mission that inspired it, commands respect, admiration, even awe in places for the logistical nightmares that had to be overcome to get it done. But its a hard movie to love.
For two hours and 37 minutes, U.S. espionage agents and soldiers track and kill Osama Bin Laden. The film is as single-minded and unemotional as Maya, the protagonist whose eyes provide our window on this secret world.
She pursues this goal for eight years, through interrogation and torture of Arab detainees, multiple al-Qaida bomb attacks, mountains of photographs or transcriptions of phone conversations. When a body bag is zipped over the face of Americas most wanted man, she and we are exhausted and relieved.
Whether that will satisfy you depends on your ability to enjoy a movie with virtually no emotional component.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal stepped into similar territory in The Hurt Locker, but the main bomb defuser in that film had needs and anxieties and a life (however frustrating) outside his mission. Maya does not.
We know nothing about her, except that the C.I.A. recruited her out of high school. She has no lovers or friends, except for a casual drinking buddy in her unit. She has no apparent family, no outside interests. She lives to stalk the man who attacked our country; everything that advances this project makes her happy, and everything that impedes it (including delays she perceives as governmental timidity) makes her angry.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya with the laser-like focus required. On a few occasions, Bigelow and Boal seem to suggest shes slightly dehumanized by the waterboarding and sleep deprivation she oversees, but the movie doesnt develop that idea.
Nor does it raise philosophic questions. Other films may ask how much collateral damage to civilians is acceptable when seeking a killer, or whether torture is permissible when we know both guilty and innocent people must undergo it. Zero Dark Thirty does not. (The title comes from the hour, 12:30 a.m., when soldiers flew off to assault Bin Ladens compound.)
Instead, its the military equivalent of a police procedural. On that level, I dont see how it could be bettered: Tension and intensity never flag.
The matter-of-fact tone suits every setting in the film, from CIA boardrooms to tiny holding cells. This is how we did it, each scene proclaims, and thats easy to believe.
The attack on the compound, abbreviated by the imminent arrival of the Pakistani military (which wasnt told in advance), has a credible mix of efficiency and anxiety: A soldier shoots an armed man who isnt Bin Laden, then reflexively kills his aggrieved wife. When a comrade asks if shes dead, the shooter casually answers, No, but shell bleed out. Bigelow and Boal dont judge that moment; they report it.
Supporting characters dont matter much; they merely serve plot-related functions. Still, its always enjoyable to see Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler and Harold Perrineau.
Jennifer Ehle stands out as Mayas co-worker, the one she meets for beer. On Broadway, this Winston-Salem native has won two Tony Awards; in movies, shes usually brought in for small injections of heart or humor. Her friendly chemistry with Chastain shows another route Zero mightve taken, but it rushes back to tapped phones and hacked computers. In the films hunt for Bin Laden, theres no time to be wasted on humanity.