The real "War on Terror", stripped of hoo-rah heroics or faux-patriotic glamour: a group of determined, foul-mouthed nerds and obsessive power women hunting down cockroaches in the dark, with little recompense save a narrowing sense of safety and the grim satisfaction of vengeance.
A somber opening sequence invokes a subtle reminder of "that day in September", and is immediately followed by repulsive acts of violence, anchoring us in the costly ethical aftermath. The first half of the movie introduces a happy ring of friends in the intelligence community, namely the stick-like Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA-educated analyst, and her partner, Dan (Jason Clarke), a PhD-educated torture specialist. They are out for blood, but how far will they go to get it?
We also meet Maya's affable friend, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) and various spooks who troll the halls of Langley berating each other for their lack of tangible results. When this crew gets together, their interactions are typically marked by excessive cursing and shallow personalities. I'm no prude, but Maya's response when asked if she has a boyfriend must be some sort of apex for modern feminism... Later, when an intelligence failure costs one of her superiors his career, without even looking him in the eye she mumbles "I.S.I. fucked you, I'm sorry" and it sounds like she says "I's fucked ya', I'm sorry." I get the impression these people really hate their jobs.
We check in with this merry bunch over the first decade of the 21st century, as they lose themselves in an invisible war against the fascistic militant group Al Qaeda and its army of shadows. This is depicted as murky , dangerous intelligence work; police action without a moral compass or a legitimate measurement of progress. They struggle to dismantle the terrorist networks and prevent further attacks, and are hindered by dead ends and explosions. The second half of the film propels us into the hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda, spearheaded by a determined Maya, who is by this point no longer the girl plucked up after high-school by the CIA at the beginning of the movie. She is wrought by guilt wrapped in a sense of duty and reinforced by experience. Where her colleagues have fallen out of exhaustion, become distracted, or killed, she is zealous to an almost hysterical degree. After uncovering new clues buried in old evidence, she goes on a rampage, whipping the institution into a frenzy that resonates all the way to the President and his aides. At the risk of her credibility, a major operation is launched and overseen by peerless Maya, and by this point in the film we understand the stakes involved.
Zero Dark Thirty works as a modern American spy thriller because it distorts the familiar caricatures of America's black operatives as optimistic, narrow-minded chest-thumpers into depressive, narrow-minded chest-thumpers. Throughout the movie their presence is integral or at least directly affected by recent, real-life events that can be traced to any newspaper lying around from the last few years. This is heavy stuff, and makes the human toll feel personal for the viewer as it does for Maya on her quest for justice. The atmosphere is visceral, gritty and sweaty; I appreciated the respect for the visual geography of Pakistan as more than just an action set piece. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal intelligently mine the raw nerves of recent history and combine it with accurate data to believably hound our heroes and construct compelling drama.
Is it one-hundred-percent comprehensive and accurate? Of course not. Is it more accurate than the "official" narrative we've been spoon-fed since 9/11? The Pentagon came down pretty hard on Bigelow, which leads me to believe that it is. What we have here is a film based on real events, and it is entertaining, which is what matters. The controversy surrounding Bigelow's latest hit is out of touch, as usual, and it's hard not to take offense by some of the reception. There are still people who doubt the United States government is capable of torture? What? The film's depiction of these acts rings true on a fundamental level: one asshole bullying another asshole into submission over a sliver of information. These scenes are hard to watch, but never seem distasteful or anything less than story-driven. The part where Maya throws a temper tantrum in front of her boss was much more torturous to sit through.
I expect most of the character development will send closet misogynists running. Women command the screen; they are sexy and intimidating and in charge of their surroundings. The scene where Maya jokingly berates a group of SEALs for being blunt instruments will no doubt close off the minds of white-knight yahoos who take it upon themselves to deify the military and all things manly. In fact, this movie's deadpan delivery made me respect the armed forces all the more, or at least perceive them in a more human and vulnerable context. The storming of Osama's compound, which is actually occupied by several families, finds suspense in our anticipation of closure. Will they find Osama? Is he really in there? Was it worth it? These are the final questions the movie poses, and although we think we have the answers, we want to see the characters discover them for themselves. When that dramatic scene finally arrives, it is less a stylized, fast-paced action extravaganza than a a low-light docudrama about armed men methodically opening locked doors. Like the discipline of the SEALs, the movie feels sleek, fearless and without agenda, zeroing in on the final kill. And then he's dead, and all that's left is to clean up the giant mess.
I liked this movie. It's serious, smart, and intense. It is also dark and edgy. Boal's dialogue is short and to-the-point, huge packets of information received in slow succession, dripping with gloomy wisdom. There are some clever jabs at President Obama and the Republican Party. Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best movies of 2012 and love it or hate it, will find a distinct spot in the historical gamut of our generation's war filmography, alongside modern classics like Jarhead, Stop Loss and In The Valley of Elah, and movies of previous generations about Vietnam and World War II.