By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Zero Dark Thirty closes the book on 9/11 movies the way killing Osama bin Laden lent closure to 9/11 itself. A decade of grief, anger, the frustration of chasing a phantom and questioning tactics used to track him inspired movies that could be divisive, insightful, brilliant or bad but never had a proper ending.
Director Kathryn Bigelow was producing yet another, focused on the fruitless hunt for bin Laden, when the terrorist leader's death at the hands of U.S. forces was confirmed in 2011. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal — both Oscar winners for The Hurt Locker — made revisions to match history, resulting in Zero Dark Thirty. They have our ending now, resulting in a thrilling, cathartic movie experience.
Zero Dark Thirty begins with a black screen and anguished voices, tastefully sparing viewers another look at 9/11 horror yet stirring that day's vengeful urges. Bigelow jumps ahead two years, to a CIA detention camp in Pakistan where Saudi Arabian prisoners are tortured — there's no more apt description — by masked CIA agents for shreds of information about bin Laden's whereabouts.
One pair of eyes beneath a balaclava appears stunned by the waterboarding, trussing and taunting being observed. Unmasked, the agent is revealed to be a woman, making this film personal for Bigelow. The agent's name is Maya, although even after tracking down bin Laden she'll be referred to as "the girl" when her confirmation of the kill is reported to the White House. As the only woman director to finally win an Oscar, Bigelow knows about being underestimated in a predominantly male profession.
Maya is a real person — although her name is changed for security reasons — and played with conviction and compassion by Jessica Chastain. Boal's procedural screenplay doesn't allow Maya (or anyone else) much in the way of character development, yet Chastain makes the act of thinking into her defining trait. Maya is all business, obsessively analytical and bristling at indifference with judiciously chosen f-words. She'll be one of the guys if she needs to, as long as the job gets done.
Compressing 10 years of dead ends and detours into 2 1/2 hours occasionally makes Zero Dark Thirty as challenging to follow as bin Laden was for the CIA. Bigelow methodically traces clues from prisons in Poland and Afghanistan, to tribal territories and Kuwait City where a Lamborghini bribe yields results. Maya's frustration is measured by continuing al-Qaida attacks in London and Saudi Arabia, even on a CIA outpost, each presented tense as tripwires.
Those sequences are merely warmups for Bigelow's brawny final act, re-creating the fatal assault on bin Laden's compound by Navy SEAL Team Six. We know the ending, yet we remain mesmerized by familiar details, filmed with night-vision green tint and a harrowing sense of urgency. It's as close to being in the White House situation room that night, watching a closed-circuit broadcast, as anyone could expect.
Bigelow doesn't strike up the band when the mission is accomplished. Victory is muted by lost time and lives, and compromised notions of what's fair in wartime. The last thing we see in Zero Dark Thirty is Maya's face and it is also ours, silently crying tears of reflection.