Once in a long while, a fresh-from-the-headlines movie — like All the President’s Men or United 93 — fuses journalism, procedural high drama, and the oxygenated atmosphere of a thriller into a new version of history written with lightning. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s meticulous and electrifying re-creation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is that kind of movie. Early on, a Saudi Arabian terror suspect, imprisoned at an undisclosed CIA ”black site,” is stripped, starved, and waterboarded. For the audience, it’s a deeply unsettling spectacle, but also a darkly fascinating one, since Dan (Jason Clarke), the bearded, thoughtful-looking agency veteran who’s doling out the abuse, is anything but a sadist. ”When you lie to me,” he says, ”I hurt you,” and this mantra, repeated with terse resolve, lets us know that he’s doing whatever it takes to extract information. As Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA analyst, looks on with a mixture of horror and stony approval, Dan plays both bad cop and (as he offers food and relief from torture) good cop.
The suspect finally gives up a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he claims works as a courier for bin Laden. Part of the power of Zero Dark Thirty is that it looks with disturbing clarity at the ”enhanced interrogation techniques” that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked. This is a bin Laden thriller that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama could love. At the same time, the film spins its fearless — and potentially controversial — stance toward the issue of how the U.S. treats its prisoners into a heady international detective thriller.
Desperate for a link to bin Laden, Maya zeroes in on the name of the courier, and it becomes her obsession. Zero Dark Thirty immerses us, brilliantly, in her intellectual processes as she attempts to find out where on earth this man could be. Gravely alert, Jessica Chastain acts with a hushed ferocity that turns her every reaction into a form of action. She plays Maya as a dogged soldier of the information age whose youth and inexperience are really assets, since she isn’t trapped in old ways of seeing. She knows when she’s confronting outdated Cold War logic. The trouble is, her golden lead keeps going cold (at one point she’s told that the courier is dead), and as the years tick forward, her boss (Kyle Chandler) — a testy functionary of the Bush era — ups the pressure to ”protect the homeland.” He wants captives he can show off to his superiors, not the increasingly elusive bin Laden. But Maya digs in, navigating a treacherous puzzle of duplicitous suspects, coded names, and suicide bombers who know how to worm their way into a U.S. safety zone. Some of her strategy is almost funny, as when she gets Dan, back in the States, to hit up the agency for 200 grand — all to buy a Lamborghini for a stooge in Kuwait who’ll provide a key phone number.
When Maya finally locates the person she believes is the courier, there’s a long sequence, set in the packed downtown streets of Peshawar, Pakistan, in which a team of agents tries to get near his cell phone, and Bigelow directs it with such visually supple real-time suspense that she just about controls your heartbeat. When the link to bin Laden is established, and we see that iconic, three-tiered concrete lair, it’s cathartic.
Bigelow stages the deadly raid on the compound for maximum realism, which gives the film a classic thriller climax that is also, in its shockingly low-key way, almost an anti-thriller climax. The Navy SEALs blow open the doors, then inch, floor by floor, through the darkness, where they strafe Osama’s assistants and wives — and it’s all staged with a calm that mirrors the no-sweat, strictly-business demeanor of the SEALs themselves. (It’s no spoiler to say that they get bin Laden, though it would be to say what the killing looks like.) They’re soldiers doing their jobs, and with awesome bravery, but Zero Dark Thirty is really a gripping salute to the desk warrior who spent not minutes but years going in for the kill. A