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After the September 11, 2001, attacks that murdered 3,000 Americans, Osama bin Laden became the world’s most-hunted man. Ten years later, the search continued.
For CIA agent Mya (Jessica Chastain: Lawless), the search for bin Laden is an obsession. She takes a position in the Pakistan bureau and spends every waking hour tracking obscure leads and interrogating detainees.
Over the years, Mya formulates a lead: a courier mentioned by several detainees seems to have direct links to bin Laden. She becomes convinced that if she tracks down this mystery messenger, she’ll find the man behind al-Qaeda. But the faith of one CIA agent isn’t enough for the government, and Mya must fight both the patriarchal system and the slow-moving bureaucracy.
Unless you’ve been living in a bunker for the past year, you know how this film ends. But Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about the dramatic raid; it’s about the endless office hours and interrogations that brought Seal Team Six to an isolated home in Pakistan. Think of it as an episode of Homeland, but with fewer psychotic breaks and more reasonable plot development.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) has a knack for gritty action and tense intercutting, but with Zero Dark Thirty, she shows admirable restraint. Chronicling the painstaking, decade-long hunt for bin Laden makes the film’s gut-wrenching raid feel like a high-stakes moment, even though we know the ending.
By layering interrogations with ho-hum office work, Bigelow demystifies intelligence work. It’s not vodka martinis and tuxedos. It’s sweaty torture chambers, paper work, bureaucracy and watching your friends die in escalating violence. If you have the stomach for all that, maybe, just maybe, you’ll get your victory, though it may seem a little hollow after all you’ve sacrificed.
As Mya, Chastain is a pillar of intense commitment, and you can feel her white-hot rage when she must fight to get her theories and plans recognized. While Chastain is excellent at portraying Mya’s dogged work ethic, she doesn’t give her character much dimension. You never learn what made her so obsessively good at her job.
Interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke: Lawless) steals the show. With steely eyes that boast both intelligence and violence, he is truly bad news to anyone holding information he needs. Dan is fascinating because Clarke makes him a normal, likeable guy. He doesn’t like torturing people, he’d rather be in an office. But if you need to extract information, he’s good with a dog collar.
The scenes of enhanced interrogation — torture in lay terms — are what make Zero Dark Thirty both compelling and controversial. While the truth of what happened with detainees will probably remain classified for years to come, the scenes ring true precisely because they feature good people doing ugly things. The film puts the scenes on screen for the audience to judge.
Brutal, visceral and at times unbearably tense, Zero Dark Thirty is the anti-Argo, exposing the government’s darker methods for protecting the homeland. Director Bigelow had access to White House records, but in Zero Dark Thirty she didn’t make a documentary. Names have been changed, characters invented and stories redacted. Still, Bigelow and her cast do an amazing job chronicling the exhaustive, ugly but ultimately triumphant hunt for a man who now lives only in infamy.