"Zero Dark Thirty" arrives in theaters already surrounded by controversy. Three U. S. senators (John McCain, Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein) have called the film "grossly inaccurate and misleading" for its suggestion that the CIA's use of torture led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have countered that their movie does not favor torture but does accurately portray the events as related by CIA sources.
A movie review is no place to evaluate these conflicting claims, except to say that the film does seem to indicate that torture led the CIA to bin Laden, and in that way could be called "pro-torture. " Yet more essential, at least for this discussion, is that "Zero Dark Thirty" is also one of the most innovative and best made films of the past year. Every now and then, even Dick Cheney gets to like a great movie.
Like Bigelow's Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," "Zero Dark Thirty" has a measured but jittery pace, a pulse to the camera work that creates the sense of seeing the world through the eyes of someone methodical, observant and tense. The eye hovers, takes in every detail and expects the worst. Bigelow has an ability that few filmmakers have, one that Hitchcock had, the ability to make an audience nervous even when nothing bad is happening.
In the case of Bigelow, the dread that is committed to celluloid and transferred to the audience is that of the security professional, who sees the outer world as a thin facade covering an abyss of conspiracy, corruption and looming doom. This is the mental landscape of the CIA agent, so that even though most of "Zero Dark Thirty" takes place in offices, with people examining information and debating its meaning, this sense of urgency, this weird jumpiness, pervades - and it energizes every moment.
Jessica Chastain stands at the center of "Zero Dark Thirty," starring in a way that few people ever do in movies, with no real co-stars. As Maya, a CIA analyst, she is a woman in a highly butch profession, surrounded by men, as alone as Bigelow herself must have sometimes felt. Maya is young and focused, and she becomes increasingly driven as the film wears on, convinced that she and only she knows how to catch bin Laden: First find the courier, and the courier will lead right to his door.
A woman's perspective We learn nothing of Maya's personal life, which might not exist, but see her at work, arguing, cajoling and threatening her superiors, living with stress, making alliances and rubbing people the wrong way. For whatever else "Zero Dark Thirty" might be, it's the portrait of a woman in what is typically a man's job, and because the movie is directed by a woman, there is no squeamishness about implying that a woman might do things differently.
She might react to the sight of torture as a man might not, or greet news of a resounding but brutal success with a response more enigmatic than predictable. Indeed, one of the great moments of 2012's cinema - truly one for the books, to be anthologized in documentaries and played at the AFI ceremony honoring Chastain in 2050 - is the film's final shot, showing Maya alone in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, facing a vast emptiness. To see such a moment and empathize inevitably makes us wonder, does Maya really exist?
The filmmakers say yes, but that her name was changed in the film for security reasons. Meanwhile, no less an authority than Peter Bergen, the author and terrorism expert, says the real Maya is a man. In any case, Maya most certainly does live, and as a woman, in Chastain's remarkable performance, which is fierce and controlled and, like Bigelow's camera, alert to every flicker and alteration in her environment. The raid itself, the film's centerpiece, plays out practically in real time, as seen through night goggles, on a set that re-creates, in detail, bin Laden's Abbottabad compound.
Unmistakable lesson Just getting there is fraught - the helicopters thread their way between the mountains across the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, flying low so as to escape detection. Once within the gates, the pace is orderly and disciplined, just one step in front of the other leading to a gate or a door - with long stretches of silence, except for the footsteps, broken intermittently by a burst of gunfire or an exploding charge.
The scene is as mercilessly precise, as vicariously thrilling and professionally awe-inspiring as the sight of a surgeon performing miracles, except that the surgeon is in the life business, and this is something else. The lesson is unmistakable: Mess with the United States, and not only will the CIA and the special forces find you, but your story will be subsumed and commodified by American culture in the most obvious and thorough way possible - as first-rate, massmarket entertainment.