It was no surprise filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her 2010 film The Hurt Locker. Bigelow has made a career of alternately subverting and embracing action-movie conventions, but she has consistently left the impression that her real goal is to beat the men at their own game. She's 61 and spent decades honing her skills before her Oscar victory. Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow's meticulous recounting of the CIA's decadelong hunt for Osama bin Laden, and it's a triumph of film craft. But this is no action movie. Written by seasoned journalist and The Hurt Locker author Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty feels like a new kind of film based heavily on rigorous original reporting. Neither fictional narrative nor documentary, the movie exists in a unique space where authenticity and attention to detail provide their own cinematic rewards.
In its first two hours, Zero Dark Thirty can only be described as a CIA procedural. The story is told through the eyes of a young operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a character based on an actual agent who, against staggering odds, made a personal crusade of locating bin Laden. Boal based his script on firsthand accounts of the many twists and turns that led intelligence analysts to bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan, from false leads and tragically misplayed hunches to the acquisition of a crucial phone number from a sheik in exchange for a yellow Lamborghini. It all leads to a long final sequence in which Navy SEAL Team 6 storms bin Laden's compound. You know it's coming, but not like this: Using infrared lighting and innovative photographic techniques, Bigelow convincingly recreates how the soldiers actually saw and experienced the raid. It's understated and earth-shattering all at the same time. And it's as close as most of us will ever get to real danger and uncertainty.
Zero Dark Thirty also is carefully crafted to avoid partisan politics, despite the volatile nature of its subject matter. Bigelow and Boal have said they tried to depict events as they actually occurred without adding commentary. But waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques set the tone here in a series of graphic opening scenes that have already stirred significant controversy. Some viewers perceive the film as tacitly suggesting that torture helped find bin Laden — an assertion fully debunked by official findings — while others see the opposite in this movie. This discussion will only heat up as more people see the film. It may be to Bigelow's credit that Zero Dark Thirty is wide open to interpretation. That's exactly how art is supposed to work.
Bigelow's film intentionally stops short of drawing any real catharsis from bin Laden's death. That may be part of a conscious effort to avoid inflaming the Muslim world. But emotion is not what Zero Dark Thirty is about. The movie ends with a simple, marginally personal question Maya can't answer because she has no personal life of her own. It's an unexpectedly powerful moment, and a subtle commentary on the true cost of living with terrorism. — KEN KORMAN