The next two-and-half hours chart Maya’s failures and determination to find Bin Laden, a search of unexpected twists and turns. Remarkably, even with recent history still vividly present, director Kathryn Bigelow builds and sustains tension in this gripping story. Bigelow has, of course, repeatedly proved she knows her craft, most recently in her Oscar winning “Hurt Locker.” “Zero Dark Thirty” is no less compelling documenting the woman most responsible for the successful SEAL team mission.
Controversy has swirled around the representation of gruesome torture in several scenes. In fact, it would have been irresponsible to leave it out since records show that “enhanced interrogation” occurred post 9-11. Moreover, scriptwriter Mark Boal accurately depicts the contradictory outcomes: at times torture yields helpful information. In other instances, victims lie or trade on partial truths, anything to stop the pain. Taking poetic license to dramatize events and to establish one character who is a composite of several, “Zero Dark Thirty” shows that successfully locating Bin Laden comes from years of persistent, painstaking intelligence work by Maya and others, with many dead ends.
The title “Zero Dark Thirty” identifies military time, 30 minutes after midnight, a state of literal and figurative darkness, an appropriate reference given the lack of clarity throughout the search as well as in the Abbottabad strike. Cinematographer Greig Fraser uses that trope of obscurity to excellent effect through claustrophobic and cluttered compositions, in shadows and sunlight, in open and confined landscapes. Hitchcock had a knack for this as well, on fine display in “North by Northwest.” Fraser reveals crucial details little by little; for example, a car approaches a checkpoint across dusty fields, an outpost looks small and vulnerable, a man’s feet swing out of the car seen from ground level, and a cane taps down amidst screams of questions—and it’s too late.
Composer Alexandre Desplat interlaces emotively strong music with suspenseful silence. And editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor keep the pace brisk but never rushed as agents follow a complex and complicated trail. Bigelow keeps us up to speed via identification of places, times and dates on the screen.
Above all, Maya carries the film through the superb performance by Jessica Chastain. Equally strong are Jason Clarke, a CIA officer; Jennifer Ehle as an agent; and Reda Cateb as a captive. The riveting SEAL team assault feels like a documentary record, benefiting, as the filmmakers did, from available intelligence. “Zero Dark Thirty” powerfully takes on the moral and emotional, psychological and physical demands of the desperate hunt for Bin Laden. It ends with THE question to Maya for all of us, “Where do you want to go?” At area cinemas.