Why 'Zero Dark Thirty' Is the Best Film of the Year

Director Kathryn Bigelow's latest is a cinematic tour de force, but one open to moral questions.

Director Kathryn Bigelow's latest is a cinematic tour de force, but one open to moral questioning.

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Khobar, Saudi Arabia, May 29, 2004: A terrorist faction affiliated with al-Qaeda attacks two oil installations, killing 19 foreigners and 3 locals.

London, July 7, 2005: Four suicide bombers blow themselves up on public transit during rush hour, killing 52 civilians.

Islamabad, September 20, 2008: A dump truck laden with explosives detonates in front of the Marriott Hotel, killing at least 54.

Khost, Afghanistan, December 30, 2009: A suicide attack against Forward Operating Base Chapman kills 9, including 7 members of the CIA.

For all the political talk of the War on Terror, it's a war that remains largely an abstraction in post-9/11 America, with long periods of relative silence punctuated by occasional news of a terrorist attack overseas. Zero Dark Thirty, the stunning new film by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, has been widely, and accurately, described as a "procedural," an intercontinental detective story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But it is also an unconventional war movie about an unconventional war, one in which those on the front lines are not principally soldiers and marines, but intelligence analysts and operatives. For them, the war is not a series of loosely connected news events, but a daily, agonizing reality.

It is already difficult to discuss Zero Dark Thirty without discussing its attendant controversies, and I won't try. But before wading into these, let me say that, judged purely on cinematic grounds, Zero Dark Thirty is a tour de force, and the best film of the year. Bigelow and Boal's prior collaboration, The Hurt Locker, was extraordinary in its execution but relatively narrow in its ambitions, a series of snapshots from a life lived at unthinkable extremes. With Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers bring the same meticulous eye and sense of harrowing immediacy to a story of vastly greater scope.

At the center of the film is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA analyst of undisguised talent and obstinacy. We first meet her in 2003, when a veteran interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke) introduces her to the savage realities of the Agency's detainee program. "When you lie to me," he tells Ammar (Reda Kateb), a captive with possible links to al Qaeda, "I hurt you." It's a promise fulfilled with the now all-too-familiar litany of brutal techniques: beatings, waterboarding, stress positions, extremes of cold and dark, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, mind games. "It's gonna take a while," Dan explains to Maya. "He has to learn how helpless he is."

Eventually Ammar produces a name, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, and the film enters its long second act, its procedural phase, in which leads are followed, lost, and rediscovered. Maya (a character based on a genuine CIA analyst whose identity remains classified) is convinced that Abu Ahmed is a courier with direct ties to bin Laden. But her superiors are unpersuaded, and her consequent insubordinations become progressively more explicit. Years tick by, as the story winds it way through Islamabad and Kuwait City, through Langley, Virginia and a "black site" in Gdansk, Poland.

Until May 2, 2011, when Maya's tenacious conviction is vindicated in a walled compound in Abbottabad. Here, in the movie's final act, Bigelow dramatizes the bin Laden raid with all the meticulous care of the Seal Team 6 squad that preceded her: muffled Blackhawks thrum across the Khyber Pass; night vision paints the blackness a queasy green; explosives are set, shots fired, and blood spilled.

Zero Dark Thirty is, like the story it chronicles, a sprawling enterprise—one that, unlike so many other offerings of this holiday season, earns every minute of its two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time. The large cast encompasses Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, and too many others to catalog. As Dan, the ambivalent interrogator, the Australian-born Clarke is particularly notable, building on the work he did earlier this year in Lawless.

Chastain's Maya, though, remains a bit of a cipher. The actress is good, as always, and it is a relief that her character has not been burdened with backstory. Yet something is missing, some telling idiosyncrasy, especially when she makes her most forceful declarations. (Explaining her attendance at an Abbottabad briefing she tells the CIA chief, "I'm the motherfucker who found this place.") For all Chastain's gifts, Maya comes across less as an individual than as the expression of an idea: the woman who must be tough enough to survive in a male environment, a topic about which Bigelow knows more than a little.

As for Bigelow herself, her direction is vital, controlled, enthralling. If The Hurt Locker cracked the door on her cinematic gifts, Zero Dark Thirty kicks it wide open. Boal's script, meanwhile, is a comparable marvel, gripping yet utterly authentic.

But the film is not, of course, authentic in the most literal sense, which brings us to the overlapping controversies it has engendered. The first erupted long before the movie even screened, when news broke that the Obama administration had granted Bigelow and Boal access to classified information, and opponents of the president charged that the movie would amount to pro-White House propaganda. Their concern was misplaced: Obama appears only once, on a TV screen in the background, and his presence is ironic at best.

But the filmmakers' extraordinary access raises other, more troubling questions. Bigelow and Boal have presented their filmmaking process as "journalistic," while at the same time stressing that the resulting movie is a work of fiction, not a documentary. The problem, as Peter Maass and others have noted, is that it is impossible to know where the journalism ends and the fiction begins: in short, where the filmmakers have been privy to secrets shared by the CIA and where they've simply made things up.

Compounding such concerns is the sense in many quarters that Zero Dark Thirty is, at least implicitly, pro-torture—that it shows that "waterboarding works." I confess that my initial response was very nearly the opposite: No one, I thought, who sits through the film's early, excruciating scenes, will ever again claim (as many advocates of "enhanced interrogation" did) that waterboarding does not constitute torture. Moreover, unless I misremember, it is neither waterboarding nor other physical abuse that results in Ammar's eventual confession, but rather the kindness and trickery that follow. (Though one can, of course, argue that it is only the abuse that makes the later trickery possible.) Several writers have also cited as evidence of pro-torture bias a scene in which a peripheral CIA agent complains, after the detainee program is shut down, that intelligence will be harder to obtain. But I was equally struck by another moment. The CIA director (Gandolfini) convenes a meeting to assess the likelihood that bin Laden will be found at the Abbottabad compound, and the most skeptical of all those sitting around the table is Dan himself, who places the odds at a "soft 60" percent. The very person who conducted the initial interrogation, in other words, is the one least convinced by the intelligence it gleaned.

Which is not to say that I necessarily disagree with critics of the portrait painted by the film; rather that I am conflicted, and eager to see it a second time with their complaints in mind. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow and Boal have produced a powerful, morally complicated work on an urgent subject. It is a film that deserves—that almost demands—to be seen and argued over.