"Zero Dark Thirty" fills its first minute with a harrowing black screen set to the screams of panic from distress calls during 9/11. The last time such a device was used to evoke that tragic day without relying on explicit images of burning buildings was Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which utilized reaction shots to underscore the human element of the devastation. In that context, the intimation served to resurrect the anger and shock later appropriated to start a war. Bigelow, a subtler filmmaker less driven by ideology than instinct, applies a similar approach to convey more complex reactions driving the weighty historical drama about to unfold: The utter chaos of fighting a losing battle and then clawing back to the top.
Featuring another team-up with "The Hurt Locker" screenwriter Mark Boal, Bigelow's taut depiction of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is a true movie of the moment. In an alternate reality where bin Laden remained at large, the filmmaker would have made "Kill Bin Laden," the earlier version of "Zero Dark Thirty" still in production when Barack Obama announced the Al Qaida's chief's death at the hands of Navy SEAL operatives in May 2011. With bin Laden still on the loose, it would remain thematically rooted in the darkness of the movie's opening moments.
Given the chance to give her story a happy ending, Bigelow smartly blankets it in shades of ambiguity. "Zero Dark Thirty" tracks a full range of emotions associated with the proverbial war on terror, from the naivete of its earliest stirrings to the spirit of vengeance that gave its apparent victory such a vital quality in the Western world. At the same time, the movie questions the certitude of the transition from despair to triumph, enabling "Zero Dark Thirty" to realize the power of its immediacy while giving the proceedings a lasting value. With ambitious young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) embodying the mixture of thrill and fury driving the hunt for bin Laden, Bigelow's engaging nail-biter avoids the pratfalls of "spiking the football," as the President described the danger of celebrating bin Laden's death. Instead, it's an opportunity to sober up.
From its pre-credits prologue, "Zero Dark Thirty" jumps ahead to 2004, during a stage of investigation fraught with uncertainty, when American intelligence still relied heavily on brash interrogation techniques. Set at a series of "black sites" in Pakistan and Iraq, where American intelligence subjected prisoners to waterboarding and other violent means of obtaining whatever intel they could, the story begins with Maya's arrival as a new recruit trained by a jaded interrogator (Jason Clarke) who quickly shows her the violent ropes. His brazen show of hostility toward the Al Qaeda operative in their possession mirrors the empty "America, Fuck Yeah" attitude that defined immediate post-9/11 temperaments.
"This is what defeat looks like, bro," he tells the helpless prisoner while grasping at straws. Maya, initially shocked by the situation, manages to funnel that frustration into a cunning strategy as she grows into the role of mission leader. Boal's screenplay encompasses years of events by boiling them down to Chastain's commitment to her task, which evolves past the dissolution of the U.S.'s detainee program to a diversification of the strategy that eventually allows her to drop a pin on bin Laden's whereabouts. Rarely smiling or seen in repose, she's a menacing figure of determination.
We only know enough about Maya in the moment to watch how her anger over each subsequent failure makes her stronger -- and potentially more dangerous. Her burgeoning confidence is a realization of the John Wayne fantasy that the Bush administration constantly reached for. From her routine insistence that "I'm going to kill bin Laden," she eventually gets the money quote when she speaks up in a strategy discussion about the possibilities of a raid. "I'm the motherfucker that found this place," she says, indulging the aggression she's so frequently forced to keep pent up. Lacking certainty about bin Laden's whereabouts even in the moments leading up to that famous assault, Maya's persistence involves an aspect of religious conviction that puts a human face on the confidential processes driving modern warfare. She's a symbol with many layers.
Given its scope and undulating feelings, "Zero Dark Thirty" takes into account a series of shifting temperaments. Bigelow consolidates the past decade of 9/11 cinema with plenty of familiar ingredients, whether or not they're there on purpose. With James Gandolfini in a fleeting role as coarse CIA head Leon Panetta, the actor virtually stumbles into the room straight out of "In the Loop," Armando Ianucci's brilliant satire of the institutional dysfunction that lead the country to war.
While not a blatant satire, "Zero Dark Thirty" similarly shows the delicate balancing act involved in wartime strategy always on the brink of turning sour. In more precise terms, Bigelow's ability to dramatize modern history known to many but only truly understood by a precious few mirrors the surreal quality of Paul Greengrass' "United 93," which also managed to transform traumatic history into cinematic narrative. And from the burgeoning temperaments of post-9/11 warmongering found in the finale of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," Boal's screenplay eventually arrives at the uneasy mindset associated with a seemingly endless battle, echoing Bigelow's own "The Hurt Locker."
Unlike "The Hurt Locker," however, "Zero Dark Thirty" shows the cracks in planning stages outside the battle field. Boal's dialogue constantly prances between false bravado and tentative belligerence, a fascinating game of risk with echoes of "Dr. Strangelove," particularly once the Administration prevaricates over whether it's worth the effort to send troops into the home where they believe Bin Laden hides. "We don't know what we don't know," somebody says, a staggering admission that prompts the apt response, "What the fuck does that mean?"
Of course we know what they don't know, which makes the finale such a juicy epilogue after so much chatter. The movie's title refers to the 12:30am raid on the Abbotabad compound where bin Laden was discovered, and after spending over two hours demystifying the process behind that discovery, Bigelow delivers an acute realization of the mission's execution that's eerily in sync with the way it played in the popular imagination. Visually, the events unfold as a mashup of shadowy movements with flashes of green night vision. It's simultaneously predictable and tense.
Yet even as "Zero Dark Thirty" veers towards the inevitable victory march, Bigelow observes the team's swift maneuvers without valorizing them, leaving room for interpretation as to its moral certitude. Wherever you fall, the climax contains serious payoff, but then comes a final image that realizes the entire spectrum of post-9/11 trauma with hardly one word spoken. This telling coda brings us up to date with the one question Bigelow's trenchant movie can't answer: Now what?
Criticwire grade: A+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony releases "Zero Dark Thirty" on December 19 followed by a nationwide rollout in January. It has strong prospects at the box office as the ideal "smart" year-end fare and should wind up as a major contender at the Academy Awards, although the fall season is already fairly crowded so it still faces a good amount of competition. Watch the trailer below: