Denounced by political journalists—sight unseen, in at least one case—before it had even been released, Zero Dark Thirty has been overwhelmed by debate about its depiction of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” known more bluntly as torture. So let’s get that issue out of the way first: Yes, the film, a painstaking account of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, shows one detainee in particular being waterboarded and otherwise manhandled, because that happened. More problematically, it suggests that these measures indirectly produced intelligence regarding the courier who ultimately led to bin Laden—a point on which various knowledgeable parties have fervently disagreed. But charges that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who previously collaborated on 2008’s Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker) actively endorse torture are absurd. Their treatment of the interrogations is dispassionate and objective, allowing viewers to draw virtually any conclusion they choose. They take no stance.
They do, however, inevitably simplify and embellish the lengthy, complex sequence of events that resulted in the May 1, 2011, raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) plays a young CIA officer named Maya who devotes every waking hour to the hunt; when a colleague asks if she has a boyfriend, or even any friends at all, the answer is a telling silence. Maya does have a lead, though: the “war name” of bin Laden’s most trusted courier, who might well lead to the man himself. For years, she pursues this tenuous piece of information with the tenacity of a bloodhound, as some colleagues are killed by terrorists and others gradually lose interest in bin Laden, assuming he’s either dead or irrelevant. Eventually, she makes her case persuasively enough that SEAL Team Six is sent into Pakistan, even though there’s no concrete proof that it’s bin Laden who’s hiding in that suspicious fortress.
The notion that one agent almost single-handedly avenged 9/11, fighting clueless superiors along the way, is typical Hollywood nonsense, and the ways in which Zero Dark Thirty valorizes Maya can be exasperating. But that’s largely because the film is otherwise so unemphatically gripping—a data-driven procedural that acknowledges the needle-in-a-haystack nature of intelligence work. Bigelow remains an action filmmaker par excellence, mining unbearable tension from the build-up to the Camp Chapman suicide bombing in December 2009 and devoting a full half-hour to the climactic Abbottabad raid, shot mostly in night vision. What truly linger, however, are a handful of quieter moments that speak penetrating volumes about everything from institutional sexism (“Was I lying or what?” one male agent asks another of Maya, out of her earshot) to the pecking order among the nation’s elite. “What do you think of the girl?” asks CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini). “I think she’s f*ckin’ smart,” his aide replies. “We’re all smart, Jeremy,” says Panetta, practically rolling his eyes. Now that’s some unvarnished, thought-provoking truth.