Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t strictly designed to make us morally uncomfortable, which is exactly why it’s morally discomfiting. Bigelow’s aim is not to tell us what to think; she even refuses to tell us outright what she thinks. At first, Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a junior CIA agent who’s just learning the ropes of interrogation, flinches as she watches an eerily delicate form of brutality being inflicted upon a prisoner. Later, Maya takes a hand in the captive’s torture herself, seemingly without the flicker of an eyelid.
Is this evidence of Bigelow’s revulsion at the methods the United States government used to smoke out Osama Bin Laden, or of her moral disengagement from the whole issue? That question is up for interpretation until the end of “Zero Dark Thirty” and beyond. Because “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t a brief, the multiplex’s equivalent of a white paper, a thing we can sum up in a two-minute takeaway. (Though that hasn’t stopped people from trying, in some cases even before they've seen the movie, as columnists Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan have done.) Instead, it’s a stunning, confident, tensile piece of work held together by doubt rather than moral certainty – as if Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal were operating from the idea that doubt is dynamic, while moral certainty is just another kind of stasis.
Chastain’s Maya is the steely soul of “Zero Dark Thirty,” a footsoldier so driven to locate the mastermind behind 9/11 that her mania defines her very core. She would be the ultimate government lackey, dutiful to the point of zealotry, except she's her own harshest judge: Serving her country may be hard enough; pleasing herself is harder. She delivers the movie’s most rousing catch phrase – its only catch phrase; you’ll know it when you hear it – in a scene where a group of blowhard male Langley types, led by James Gandolfini as a stand-in for Leon Panetta, assume credit for her work as if she weren’t even in the room.
Maya has a friendly-prickly competitive relationship with her female coworkers -- as personified by a fellow agent played by Jennifer Ehle, with her customary ironclad coolness – and barely even entertains the notion of flirting with the guys, even when she’s stuck in remote desert outposts with them for days on end. The prime candidate for that kind of monkey business would be Jason Clarke’s Dan, the senior agent who shows her the ropes of interrogation, but their relationship is strictly professional. Dan, in fact, is burning out on the job just as Maya is warming up. Even he seems to know the work is soul-killing. “There’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor,” he tells her during their first torture-training session, an offer she refuses – as if watching from the monitor, distancing oneself from the horrible reality, would bring a kind of shame.
You could read that as Bigelow’s view of torture, too. There are several lines of dialogue, put in the mouths of characters who are in a position to know, that attest to the inefficacy of torture rather than its effectiveness. The movie takes the view, in fact, that Bin Laden was captured and killed thanks to a combination of intelligence (both the brain-cell kind and the government-sponsored kind), perseverance and more than a few strokes of dumb luck. Information gleaned by torture may have played a role, but when Bigelow shows an instance of waterboarding, its suffocating horror is precisely the point: The sound of a man who’s drowning, or who even just believes he’s drowning -- the cacophony of gurgling and choking -- is the stuff of nightmares, and Bigelow doesn’t shy away from it. It’s worth remembering that her last movie, “The Hurt Locker,” was less about the horrors of war in any general sense than about the ways humans survive stress, handling emotional strain not by breaking down but by getting tougher – sometimes until there’s barely any self left.
In the weeks since “Zero Dark Thirty” began screening for critics and other movie professionals, the conversation has buzzed mostly around whether or not the picture glorifies torture. Yet that kind of interrogation figures in only a small portion of the film; Maya’s obsession with getting information, the right kind of information, plays out in far more tedious tasks, like tracing cell phone calls, surreptitiously trailing suspicious vehicles and the like. Bigelow and Boal, himself a former reporter who spent time embedded with a bomb unit in Iraq, had access to officials with intimate knowledge of the Navy SEAL mission that eventually killed bin Laden (though they deny rumors that they had access to any classified information). But they don’t get to that raid until the last 40 minutes or so of the picture. The first three-quarters of “Zero Dark Thirty” are precise and clinical, almost to a Le Carre-like degree, and the movie’s fixation on detail becomes hypnotic rather than boring.
But the final section of “Zero Dark Thirty” is astonishing. It’s more tense than it is rousing, unnervingly suspenseful even though we all know how it’s going to turn out: The action is staged in a way that drives home how wrong everything could have gone. Bigelow is an extraordinarily clear visual thinker, maybe the finest we’ve got among directors currently working in the mainstream. She and cinematographer Greig Fraser map the actors’ movements with clinical precision; it’s always clear who’s coming from where, and the cutting, by editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor, is almost languorous. No one moves very fast, which only heightens the sense that anyone’s fate could change on a hairpin turn.
As those SEALs drop down into that compound, equipped with night goggles that make them look like strange sea creatures, or green-tinged rejects from some alternative Emerald City, Alexandre Desplat’s score shifts into what sounds like a conscious nod to John Barry’s stunning “Capsule in Space” from “You Only Live Twice,” a theme that’s both magisterial and mournful – it’s music that attaches a cost to experience. And when Bin Laden is killed, the moment is swift, efficient and grim. Minutes later, the soldier who pulled the trigger recounts the event in one dazed, oblique sentence, unable to grasp the reality of it himself.
Some may see jingoism, or at least a sense of proud heroism, in that moment. The team that killed Bin Laden should think of themselves as heroes; he was a geopolitical threat whose actions defied any kind of morality. Still, Bigelow would rather send you shuffling out in silence than cheering. And the movie’s coda, in which Maya reckons with what she’s just pulled off – or doesn’t reckon with it, as the case may be – hits yet another off-chord of uncertainty. It’s Chastain’s finest moment, in a performance that’s sturdy but not transcendent. “Zero Dark Thirty” is precise, definitive filmmaking, yet Bigelow refuses to hand over easy answers. Some people call that evasion. I call it the ultimate despair.