"Zero Dark Thirty" shows guts in taking on loaded subject matter and filmmaking confidence and skill in not telling us how we should feel about it.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team behind "The Hurt Locker," lay out the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden in all its horrors, frustration and progress, in such clear, naturalistic fashion that the movie simply takes you there, without jingoism or agenda.
It takes you to CIA boardrooms, Middle East "black sites" where CIA operatives torment detainees, bustling Pakistani marketplaces that might hold clues to bin Laden's whereabouts, and finally to bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, at "zero dark thirty," military lingo for the dark of night.
It all flows as part of an urgent whole, without any big set pieces or other flourishes to distract from the story. Action sequences, including a climactic one where risk appears high even though we know how it ends, spring organically from a movie that maintains a hum of tension in every scene.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser's wide shots of a car kicking up sand as it crosses the desert, of helicopters and mountains cloaked in darkness evoke a sense of place without calling too much attention to their exquisite composition. The score by Alexandre Desplat is understated, and every performance is measured, including the lead one by Jessica Chastain, who plays a CIA targeter named Maya.
"Zero Dark Thirty" unfolds so naturally it makes other historical dramas and action films seem histrionic. Its closest counterpart is the Paul Greengrass' excellent docudrama "United 93," about the doomed 9/11 flight, but that film lacked the scope of "Zero," which distills 10 years of intelligence work into a single film.
According to its press materials, "Zero" is a "reported film," rooted in journalist and screenwriter Boal's interviews with CIA operatives close to the investigation, and then realized, with meticulous care, by Bigelow, Fraser and production designer Jeremy Hindle.
The film was shot partly in northern India, near Pakistan, and in Jordan. Bigelow and her crew used blueprints and reports on bin Laden's claustrophobic Pakistani compound to re-create it on film, down to the tiles.
Laying the groundwork so carefully allowed "Zero Dark Thirty" to flow well. So did making it a narrative film with a recognizable movie protagonist in Maya (Chastain). She is based on a real CIA operative, with her name and details changed to protect her identity.
She also appears to be based, at various points in the film, on Jodie Foster in "Silence of the Lambs" and Claire Danes on "Homeland," and on Batman, Spider-Man and other single-minded movie heroes who persist despite the odds.
Because she is in the unshowy "Zero Dark Thirty," and because she is played by the subtly expressive Chastain, Maya dials it down a notch from those other characters. Yet she remains clearly, if also mostly quietly, obsessed.
Neither the script nor Chastain give Maya an interior life, but they don't need to. They just need to, and do, show Maya's journey, over years, from a hesitant young agent to bin Laden's most dogged pursuer.
Living and breathing to find bin Laden, Maya is the audience entry point into the film, a representative of Americans' anger, dismay and determination after Sept. 11, 2001, but undiluted by the ensuing distractions of getting on with one's life or the murkiness of the Iraq war.
How Maya reacts to a development signals its degree of importance, and Chastain keeps those reactions right at the surface. She is reactionary at times, but her reactionary moments all revolve around the investigation and being stymied, by her superiors or uncooperative detainees, in her quest for justice.
It's a performance less nuanced than Jason Clarke's as Dan, a fellow operative clearly conflicted and haunted by his role as interrogator of detainees, or Jennifer Ehle's as a veteran CIA analyst with a warm heart and a cowgirl-like enthusiasm for a promising lead.
But it serves the movie beautifully, and Chastain's current awards-front-runner status for her team-player work in "Zero" heartens after so many years of awards favorites from star vehicles.
Near the beginning of the film, Maya arrives at an interrogation site in the Middle East, two years after the 9/11 attacks, wearing a suit, her hair long and curled. She looks, as Hannibal Lecter might say, like a rube.
She is out of her element, thrust into a place where interrogators wear hoods and detainees are denied sleep and food for hours. Chastain's face tracks Maya's attempts to hide her horror as Dan (Clarke) harasses detainee Ammar (Reda Kateb), a money handler for al-Qaida.
Her newness, and initial reluctance to assist Dan in waterboarding the detainee, allow the audience a bit of remove as well. But just a bit.
These scenes are thick with aggression and brutality, even when "enhanced interrogation techniques" are not being practiced. The tall, imposing Dan looms over the smaller Ammar, his posture threatening at all times. Past skirmishes are told on Ammar's battered face.
The scenes' power lies in their stark frankness, and in Kateb's performance. Ammar is not a faceless terrorist, but someone who shows grit and conviction under extreme duress.
These scenes have sparked controversy in Washington, D.C. Acting CIA director Michael Morell acknowledged that his agency cooperated with the filmmakers, but he has sought to distance the CIA from the final product. Senate Democrats Dianne Feinstein (chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee) and Carl Levin and Republican John McCain have said the film falsely links torture to key breaks in the hunt for bin Laden, and have asked to see all the materials the CIA provided the filmmakers.
"Zero Dark Thirty" lacks a clear link from its interrogation scenes to the discovery of bin Laden's compound. But the interrogation scenes factor into an overall picture that incorporates great craftiness, shoe-leather spywork by Maya and others, bribery and lots of stops and starts in the yearslong process of tracking leads.
Moving through 10 years and two presidential administrations, the movie shows no clear political bent. The hunt for bin Laden, with all its attendant fears, mistakes and victories, is story enough.
ZERO DARK THIRTY
★ ★ ★ ★
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Reda Kateb, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rated R (strong violence, including brutal, disturbing images, and language)