Most Americans can probably remember where they were when the news broke that U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden. Many may also probably remember how they celebrated. But Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty contains barely a moment of triumphalism, instead focusing in on the exhausting pursuit of the global terrorist and the sacrifices it entailed.
To tell the story of the more than 10 years between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the demise of the man who planned them, Bigelow trains her sprawling narrative on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a wispy, fair skinned CIA analyst with icy eyes and a Rottweiler spirit. "Washington says she's a killer," one officer says to another, doubting the young woman's fortitude at the beginning of the film. It doesn't take long to establish Washington is right. Maya's pinpoint precision and unwavering commitment to finding bin Laden—and nothing else—the film concludes was pivotal to his final defeat.
She is joined in her efforts by Pakistan station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), partner and mentor Dan (Jason Clarke), and perhaps her only real friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). The film is sparse in its filling out of these characters, focusing instead on the lengths they will go to track down the world's most wanted man. When they are not attending to the operation itself, Maya's colleagues serve primarily to her development—teaching her, counseling her, doubting her. Most of the best lines that define Zero Dark Thirty's hero are not uttered by Chastain, but by her co-stars. Chastain wears Maya's unrelenting focus on her sleeve, but holds the other cards of Maya's psyche close to her chest. It is up to the supporting characters to fill in what few extra details about Maya and her mission the film is willing to provide.
But Zero Dark Thirty is not concerned with Maya's motivations, her upbringing, or her aspirations—aside from finding bin Laden, that is. The movie makes it explicitly clear she has no friends or family to speak of, or any career goals aside from bin Laden's head on her proverbial plate. Rather, it cares almost exclusively about the role she plays in finding the terrorist—be it poring over documents, hassling bureaucrats, or roughing up potential sources.
Does the film endorse torture? Well, its characters certainly do, or at least, as they call it, the Bush-era "detainee program." (Whether such tactics constitute torture Zero Dark Theory leaves the viewer decide). That the crucial clue that sends Maya on her pursuit does not come from waterboarding or any other "enhanced interrogation technique" may be screenwriter Mark Boal, a former reporter, tip-toeing around historical detail—officials deny torture led authorities to bin Laden. Or it may be Bigelow slyly complicating the argument. However, the film clearly uses such techniques—torture or not—to mark Maya's journey. Looking on during Zero Dark Thirty's first interrogation Maya quivers and turns away. The film zooms to a year later, and she is quite comfortable watching the forceful procedures. Another year later she is playing bad cop herself. Maya's growing confidence with such tactics illustrate her certainty that she is on the right track.
Aside from the politics of torture, the politics of everything else are merely a backdrop in Bigelow's film. In one scene, Maya's partner warns her to be careful, lay off the dog collars they use to humiliate detainees, because "politics are changing" with the changing of the White House guard. In another, the team shrugs off a 60 Minutes interview in which Obama denies the use of torture. Obama's involvement in the mission is depicted as limited. Rather Leon Panetta (James Gandofini) serves as Maya's liaison to Washington bureaucracy. Somewhat surprisingly, the overweight, overtly Italian Gandolfini captures Panetta's teddy bear charm. His turn as CIA director is brief but memorable.