Zero Dark Thirty begins in terror and ends in despair. The first image is a black screen with the date "September 11, 2001," and a background sound of panicked, doomed voices on cell phones. The last shot is of one person in tears. In between, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal depict the failures and successes, the shame and triumph of 10 years in the War on Terror. Densely detailed, superbly shot and acted, illuminating and thrilling, it is the best film of 2012.
Every epic needs a hero, and here Maya (Jessica Chastain) uneasily fills the role. She enters the film as one of the CIA agents watching the interrogation of Ammar (Reda Kateb), a detainee. At first she shows the revulsion that most would feel watching a person being tortured and humiliated. But once she fills a bucket for the waterboarding, she's implicated. With more experience, her revulsion gives way to routine. That's a feeling viewers might not share, though perhaps they, too, are implicated.
>> READ: "Enhanced interrogation: CIA research in Zero Dark Thirty," by Peter Keough <<
The "enhanced interrogation" techniques gather meager information. Years pass, marked by dates followed by terrorist atrocities, which you might remember from disconnected news stories. It seems there was a war going on, and the good guys were losing. "Bring me people to kill!" demands George (Mark Strong), Maya's boss.
She doesn't need the motivation. Like Sgt. James in The Hurt Locker, she's dedicated to a deadly purpose. As leads come and go, as the bureaucracy runs hot and cold about her mission, and as her friends get killed, she grows monomaniacal. We're drawn into her obsession, her immersion in the nuts and bolts of modern intelligence. In the process, Bigelow implies that one gets better results from the old-fashioned methods of deception, bribery, and legwork than from locking a naked man in a box the size of a suitcase.
Shot with the handheld, precisely edited immediacy that Bigelow demonstrated in The Hurt Locker, this procedural is exhausting and exciting. The last third of the movie, the SEAL mission itself, may be the best depiction of modern warfare on the screen. And though we know how it ends, do we know what it means? The truth is in the details: the tear in a detainee's eye when he's given a bottle of juice, the joy on an agent's face as she waits for a fateful meeting. The dark passes, but the light is yet to come.
» PETER KEOUGH » PKEOUGH@PHX.COM
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow :: Written by Mark Boal :: With Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Reda Kateb, Jennifer Ehle, and Harold Perrineau :: 156 minutes :: Columbia Pictures :: Boston Common + Fenway + suburbs