by David Lamble
Zero Dark Thirty opens sans credits, with a black screen and a soundtrack filled with random voices, the anxious and gradually terror-stricken voices of office-workers trapped on the upper floors of the Twin Towers.
"We're okay, we're in the South Tower."
"When is someone coming for us? The heat is unbearable."
The filmmakers, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, open on the first of a series of settings with an industrial funk (identified onscreen by slugs like "CIA black site"), a chamber of horrors where humans do specifically unpleasant things to subjects who can't resist, and for whom no help is coming. We close in on a badly bruised face. Ammar (Reda Kateb) has clearly been worked over before we arrived. His interrogator, Dan (Jason Clarke), bears a slight resemblance to actor Seth Rogen, providing an edge to the proceedings that, while not exactly comic, is slightly off-kilter. The boyish-appearing, bearded CIA op is obviously working from a script whose psychological impact has been carefully calibrated in the bowels of Langley, Virginia.
"I own you. You belong to me. You move off the mat, and I'm going to hurt you. You don't look me in the eyes, and I'm going to hurt you. Hey man, everybody cracks in the end. It's biology!"
"Please help me!"
"You can help yourself by being truthful."
The speaker of this last line wears a black hood, but it's clearly a female voice, nicely upping Zero Dark Thirty 's well-honed sense of unreality. When she takes off the hood, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is revealed to be a red-headed girl-next-door who seems to be scout's-honor truthful when she claims, deep into the story, to be working a job she took right out of high school.
By all the parameters of Hollywood's book of casting cliches, Clarke and Chastain would seem spot-on for another Judd Apatow hip rom-com shagfest. This casting against type, along with Bigelow and Boal's determination to keep adrenaline-rush action set-pieces to a bare minimum for a 156-minute film, creates an almost disorienting suspense, odd because we know where we're headed: by film's end, Navy Seals are going to smash into an innocuous fortress – ironically located less than a mile from the Pakistan military's West Point – and assassinate its male occupants, including mass killer Osama Bin Laden.
Push a movie critic hard enough, and they'll eventually admit that every movie they plow through most reminds them of another movie. It's her seamless ability to work against the grain of all the obligatory big-moment movie horseshit that allows Bigelow to grab the inside rail to Best Picture Oscar contender. She does this with a film that some will see as a subtle editorial against CIA "enhanced interrogation" techniques, or what the guy on the street would call "torture" if he weren't being quoted for the elitist media.
With an elastic narrative arc stretched to the breaking point, Zero Dark Thirty compresses a wretched decade's worth of bum leads down blind alleys into a circumstantial case that the "needle-in-a-haystack" clue to Bin Laden's lair was the result of good cop vs. bad cop methods. Chastain's Maya manages to walk the line between them so cleanly that you'll have her back morally when she finally recommends to the CIA director – a James Gandolfini cameo that nails every one of the spy agency's bureaucratic "clusterfucks" in a few strokes – that the president order the Seals in. Earlier, a male colleague warns Maya of the high cost of being in the crosshairs of Washington's anti-torture morality squad at the wrong moment in history. "You don't want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes."
Bigelow and her cool female leads, including Maya's buddy Jessica (Jennifer Ehle talking the talk, and walking the walk), make the heavy involvement of female ops in high-risk anti-terrorist strategies seem astonishingly matter-of-fact. Here, girls are playing with and getting dirty with the boys. The thematic button on this comes as the crew casually watches President Obama's 2008 60 Minutes chat in which he rather emphatically states, "America doesn't torture."
All of the above is mere foreplay for audiences waiting for "the money shot," the beautifully orchestrated third act where the Seals attack the Bin Laden compound. As she did in her extended chase scene between Keanu Reeves' surfer cop and Patrick Swayze's surfer bank-robber in 1991's Point Break, Bigelow keeps lengthening the Navy Seals' penetration into the compound until everything finally comes to a head in a crescendo of wailing kids punctuated by deadly bursts of assault-weapon fire. As the Seals reach for Bin Laden's computer hard drives, Bigelow's camera zeroes in on a spreading bloodstain on a white carpet.
Zero Dark Thirty is as ruthlessly efficient in relating the story of America shedding its last iota of innocence as the Seals were in bagging the Bearded One. In the end, Bin Laden opted to end his days not in some cold borderlands cave, but in the kind of gated-community fortress of the type most prized by the very sort of American who will probably skip this movie.