Regardless of her Best Director snub by the Academy Award voters, Kathryn Bigelow has delivered one of the best directed movies of the year, on a very difficult topic: the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. That Zero Dark Thirty (written by Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker partner Mark Boal) begins with an extended sequence of enhanced interrogations is indicative of how the film refuses to flinch from the down-and-dirty that led to the discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. These borderline torture sessions did not produce the crucial intelligence (which is why the film shouldn’t be considered pro-torture) but they do reveal the tenacity of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative with a reputation for being a killer agent. Overcoming her own horror, Maya supervises and observes the interrogations while the man performing them (Jason Clarke) runs out of endurance long before she does.
A composite character based on a female agent who was instrumental in finding Bin Laden’s safe house, Maya is not the most compelling element in this gripping dramatization of the “the greatest manhunt in history.” Since Maya spends a lot of time analyzing data, following her instincts, and then convincing her superiors that her instincts are valid, she doesn’t live up to her rep within the agency as far as the audience can see. But in the less cinematic role of an Internet sleuth, she’s effective in correlating various espionage plots as well as the political maneuvering going on in Washington. Chastain conveys her years-long intensity with a cerebral smolder that erupts only once: when the Middle East operations are about to be subordinated to homeland security.
What’s more interesting than Maya’s relentless focus are the collaborations—and conflicts—between CIA operatives that culminate in an almost real-time re-creation of the stealth attack that proves Maya’s hunch about a high-level courier to be deadly accurate. The nighttime raid is choreographed with edge-of-your-seat immediacy through ghostly high-tech helicopters and a special force of select Navy SEALS (with Joel Edgerton as the standout) wearing four-lens goggles that make them look like insectoid predators. It’s filmed in night vision, and the force descends on the impenetrable compound like a host of telepathic aliens.
Bigelow more than maintains her reputation for being one of the most visceral action directors around. But she’s equally skilled with vivid character sketches, and Zero Dark Thirty is enthrallingly calibrated using personality to define elements of the labyrinthine counterintelligence cadre. Balancing Maya’s obsessive focus on Bin Laden is her associate, Jessica (an excellent Jennifer Ehle, cast against type), who believes in following the money—and then dangling even more money—as the way to infiltrate Al Qaeda. James Gandolfini, dispensing with stereotype, makes brief but powerful appearances as the director of the CIA, and Mark Strong plays a supervising pragmatist with almost moral force. As the agency closes in, the subterfuge—using spycraft to circumvent terrorist tradecraft—becomes harrowing. Throughout, the filmmakers concentrate on the manhunt without a ferocity that precludes any inherent melodrama or patriotic partisanship, making Zero Dark Thirty storytelling of the highest caliber.