"Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's chilling dramatization of the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, is a timely and important reminder of the agonizing human price of zealotry. It begins with sound alone, recordings of 911 operators offering empty reassurances to callers inside the Twin Towers. It presses ahead as an espionage procedural, with scenes of harsh interrogation by U.S. agents, bomb attacks and firefight ambushes by Al-Qaida, and ultimately a cinema verité-style re-creation of the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on the Pakistani compound where Bin Laden was shot and killed.
While it must be viewed as a work of fiction -- its portrayal of Abu Ghraib-style indignities practiced by CIA interrogators has drawn loud condemnation from Washington -- the film also gets a great deal right. Its representation of publicly reported events is solid. Screenwriter Mark Boal researched the story intensively, and presents it authoritatively. The film moves confidently, seemingly wise to the way that byzantine anti-terror intrigues were conducted over our heads and behind our backs.
This is a taut, crackling geopolitical thriller of a new sort. "Zero Dark Thirty" is all about what spies think they know and why they think they know it: procedure, informants, contradictory evidence, dead ends. It tracks the way intelligent people, sifting mountains of mind-numbing information, can become ghosts of their former selves. There's not much audience-pampering streamlining here. Watching the film, you feel awash with information. We're trusted to process it all, becoming part of the team as we watch, sharp-eyed, for the snippet that could become a breakthrough.
At the center of the action is Maya, a newly minted agent played by the stellar Jessica Chastain. Chastain gives us a deft portrait of the type of person who would follow this case down a rabbit hole. She's spooked by her first experience with extreme interrogation in which a field agent (Jason Clarke) manhandles a suspect (Reda Kateb), but she soon gets over it. If there's a chance that applying stress will yield usable information, she's for it. Bigelow and Boal present her as a do-gooder in a bad world, forcing us to deal with the moral confusion ourselves.
The bulk of the film consists of nuts-and-bolts detective work, with bureaucratic infighting and sudden surprise attacks followed by long periods of tense cease-fire. The climax re-enacts the dead-of-night mission to Abbottabad from the SEALs' point of view, a masterstroke of sustained, unnerving tension.
What distinguishes "Zero Dark Thirty" from rah-rah, let's-kill-some-terrorists jingoism is its willingness to face some ugly facts. The film opens and closes with the killing of innocents -- 3,000 massacred at the beginning and a handful of Bin Laden's relations gunned down in the nighttime raid. Maya wins, but she pays a price for it. She is as haunted and unsettled leaving the case as she was signing on a decade earlier. The emotional release that comes at the fadeout isn't a fist-pump, but a shudder. There is not a moment in this brilliant film that is conducive to peace of mind.