Perhaps it’s a defensive reaction, but I’m unable to see Zero Dark Thirty as some rah-rah, kill-the-motherfucker piece of jingoism that pines for the days when detainees wore dog collars. Did torture yield information that led the CIA to bin Laden? I think Zero Dark Thirty leaves it murky. Instead, the film is as uncomfortable in its relentlessly raw representations of torture as it is in its characters’ emotionally ambiguous reactions—or nonreactions—to those acts of torture. But this discomfort is precisely what endows Bigelow’s sharply directed film with such import.
Take the first scene of torture: CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) has just arrived in Pakistan and is present for the violent interrogation of a detainee named Ammar. As a fellow CIA officer named Dan (a bristly, smart Jason Clarke) roughs up Ammar, Maya cringes, clenches her jaw, clasps her arms across her chest and at one point covers her eyes. But there’s an unsettling slightness to these reactions, and one that Bigelow and Boal don’t explain with biography or backstory. The closest we get to commentary is a brief exchange between Dan and Maya after the interrogation. “How do you like Pakistan so far?” he asks. “It’s kinda fucked up,” she answers. Later, we see Maya more forcefully encouraging a cruel act of interrogation, followed by a brief cut of her gasping in the restroom. The torture is terrible and sad in its brutality; Maya’s reactions are terrible and sad in their faintness.
Where Maya shows no faintness is in her interactions—and confrontations—with other CIA officers. Chastain fiercely portrays Maya’s single-minded drive to root out bin Laden, and while Boal’s gritty, detailed screenplay calls some attention to the fact she’s a woman in a male-dominated environment (how could it not?), this is not some story of a tough chick outsmarting the male assholes around her. Maya is an enigma, but she’s not empty: We see her struggle to set aside work to socialize with a colleague (Jennifer Ehle, hardened but spirited), and in a touchingly brief shot, we glimpse the photo on her computer’s desktop, which shows her with a slain CIA officer.
Maya’s determination, as we know, pays off, and Zero Dark Thirty builds to the pivotal raid on bin Laden’s compound by a group of Navy SEALs. Largely shot with night-vision lenses, it’s a dramatic shift from earlier cinematographic naturalism, but it remains eerily and grippingly real. The suspense is thick, the carnage plentiful, and the celebration brief and fraught—this is no simple act of triumphalism. Much like the film’s earlier depictions of torture, it’s wrenchingly decisive yet, ultimately, inconclusive.
Critic’s Grade: A-
SEE IT: Zero Dark Thirty is rated R. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Cornelius, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Hilltop, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Wilsonville, Roseway.