I’m gonna die, aren’t I?
The opening minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, the new film by the Oscar-winning team behind The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, pack a wallop. The screen is entirely black, as distress calls from 9/11 are heard. The calls start off calm, from the passengers aboard the hijacked airliner United 93, and gradually get more distressed, as they shift to those trapped inside the crumbling World Trade Center.
What follows is an exhaustive, often suspenseful account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the mastermind behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden, seen through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA analyst who specializes in locating terrorists. (The film’s title, meanwhile, is military jargon for the dark of night, as well as the time—12:30 a.m.—the Navy SEALs infiltrated the Abbottabad compound.)
From the moment the project was announced, both Bigelow and Boal came under fire from Republican conspiracy theorists, including Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who suggested the filmmakers were granted “unusual access to [CIA] agency information,” and further claimed that the film’s planned October release date was meant to give Obama a political bump in the presidential election. The CIA was barraged by numerous Freedom of Information Act requests but ultimately denied the allegations. The filmmakers moved to the release date to Dec. 19 and said Obama had no cameo in the film. (He does end up making a brief appearance.) But the allegations of impropriety seem even sillier now that some members of SEAL Team Six, the group of Navy SEALs that ultimately took out bin Laden in Operation Neptune Spear, have released books or given interviews disclosing details of the raid.
After 9/11, the action in Zero Dark Thirty jumps two years ahead to 2003. Dan (Jason Clarke), an interrogation specialist, is in one of the CIA’s off-grid “black sites” torturing a man who allegedly transferred $5,000 to a 9/11 hijacker. The scene is unsparing. The weeping man is waterboarded repeatedly, stripped naked, and made to walk around the room in a dog collar before being thrown in a tiny box. Ultimately, he gives up the alias of bin Laden’s “most trusted courier.” Maya is convinced the courier will lead the agency to bin Laden, despite the objections of Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the CIA station chief in Islamabad.
Played by the red-haired beauty Jessica Chastain, Maya is obsessed with finding bin Laden; it’s been her only job since being recruited out of high school to join the agency around 9/11. She is a unique character in the intelligence community, as well as in the world of film. While off-the-cuff references are made to her looks by members of the agency—a boys’ club if there ever were one—she is described by Bradley as “a killer” and someone not to be toyed with. And unlike Homeland’s Carrie Mathison or David Petraeus’s mistress, Paula Broadwell, Maya never veers off-mission. No matter what.
“I’m not that girl that fucks,” she says when a colleague asks her about inter-agency hookups to relieve stress. “It’s unbecoming.”
Despite the Abbottabad compound being located in August 2010 and Maya’s being “100 percent convinced” that bin Laden is inside, it takes the agency forever to act.
“I’m the motherfucker that found this place,” Maya says to CIA director Leon Panetta, played by James Gandolfini, demanding an immediate kill mission. Her views are backed up by George (Mark Strong), head of Afghanistan and Pakistan Divisions of the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA, but Washington wants more surveillance footage of the area, believing the mystery man holed up inside could be a Saudi drug dealer.
“The president is a thoughtful, analytical guy,” his adviser informs George.
On May 1, 2011, many months after unearthing the compound, Maya is ecstatic to learn the Navy Seals are finally going in. The last 20 minutes or so of Zero Dark Thirty, shot mostly in night vision, are absolutely riveting, and it appears the makers of the film went through mountains of information to make it as painstakingly accurate as possible.
Like many other subtly patriotic films released this Oscar season—Argo and Lincoln included—Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is an expertly made procedural; a formula reminiscent of many hard-hitting shows on cable television. But the film transcends its military-procedural brethren through its strict attention to detail; its straightforward delivery, never kowtowing to overzealous pseudo-patriotism; and the engrossing character, Maya. Chastain, an elegant actress who has been mostly relegated to supporting turns until now, carries the entire film—and mission—on her shoulders. It’s a herculean task, but she pulls it off, striking just the right balance of wild determination and poise under pressure. It is Maya, more than the kill mission, who makes us proud to be Americans.