ZERO DARK THIRTY starts, tellingly, with a dark screen and audio clips from 9/11. Air traffic control chatter, 911 calls, and the anguished, astonished voices of people who have no frame of reference for what is happening to and around them. In doing so, the film compels the viewer to relive that day not with the iconic images common to all, but rather evoking personal idiosyncratic memories of that day, and making the recollection all the more vivid. It is a risky start to a film that recounts in crisp, visceral fashion the events set in motion by that attack, including the collective effect it had on the America psyche as it went from a pre- to a post-9/11 way of thinking.
It’s a phrase, pre- and post-911 thinking, that Maya (Jessica Chastain) the central character of ZERO DARK THIRTY repeats twice in the course of the film, and both times in the context of correcting other, older, CIA hands bent on finding Bin Laden. She is the new kid, recruited by the CIA right out of high school and admirably suited to seeing the world in this new context. She is no brash upstart, nor is she a rogue, rather she is smart, driven, and blessed with a confidence in her abilities that transcends the need for validation. As she makes her way through the maze of details, clues, hunches, human errors, politics, protocol, and entrenched bureaucracy she never doubts for a second she is on the right track in finding Bin Laden. A quiet, but dogged determination that doesn’t so much convince those around her as bowl them over. She is also an refreshing cinematic depiction of post-feminist strength: a woman for whom gender is not an issue either to her or to those around her.
Director Kathryn Bigelow deploys her camera with a peering urgency, as though there is too much to take in, but not enough time to absorb it. Like the quandary in which Maya finds herself with an overload of details, any one of which might be important, there is an urgency in the way the camera moves, torn between observing or moving on. There is the suspense of the story itself, unfolding amid a background of continuing terrorist attacks, and the torture used to extract information that may or may not be useful or even truthful. The underlying theme, and the one most troubling, is that of people on both sides who are neither sadists nor psychopaths finding themselves doing things that smack of both, and convinced that there is no other option.
Chastain, in one of the great cinematic performances, creates a superb, unpredictable tension, with quietly ferocious intensity, she juxtaposes Maya’s mental toughness with the emotional strain of doing her job. There is a distinct but subtle arc as the action progresses over the course of a decade. The first encounter with water-boarding, that leaves her obviously shaken, but not deterred. In a moment of revelation, a prisoner (Reda Kateb in a performance that all but matches Chastain‘s) being tortured asks her for help. Her face, obviously disturbed by what she has just seen, obviously offers him a glimmer of hope, one that is dashed by the flinty response to help himself by telling the truth. In a film full of devastating moments, that is the first one that carries such a surprise, and it is not the last. The effect of making that statement is one that Maya herself has not realized, and will not until the payoff in the last scene in the film, which will reveal much about what her life’s work has meant to her and to her country in the long run.
Maya, on another level, can be read as a metaphor for the effect 9/11 had on the ci-mentioned American psyche, which became obsessed with Osama Bin Laden and convinced that eliminating him would eliminate the terrorist threat, returning us to a pre-9/11 world. The memory, recalled with that initial black screen, of the deaths on 9/11 contrasted with the sight of a laser sight aimed on the back of weeping woman on her knees, or the faces of children shocked into silent tears during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, make for an uncomfortable comparison of innocence lost on both sides. ZERO DARK THIRTY, based on true events, we are reminded at the outset, spares the audience none of the moral ambiguity or the harrowing extremes of grief and elation of that post 9/11 world where everyone is making up the rules as they go along.