Zero Dark Thirty, Katherine Bigelow's terrific new terror-war thriller, achieves something rare in a Hollywood movie: It presents a hot-button subject—torture as a means of American intelligence-gathering—without the usual moral nudging. The paroxysms of outrage that this has stirred in some precincts of the pundit class are baffling, but predictable. These commentators are offended that no character in the film has been deputized to express the revulsion we should be feeling about what we're seeing—as if we, unlike the pundits, can't feel that revulsion without some sort of condescending assistance.
The movie is a docu-drama about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 attacks. It opens with a black screen and an audio montage of voices from that day—cries of horror and despair—then jumps ahead two years to a CIA "black site" at an undisclosed location somewhere in the Middle East. Here we find an Agency inquisitor named Dan (Jason Clarke) supervising the "enhanced interrogation" of a battered wretch named Ammar (Reda Kateb), who is hanging by his wrists from the ceiling. When a newly arrived intelligence analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives, Dan tells her, "It's gonna take a while. He has to realize how helpless he is." Ammar is thought to be an Al Qaeda money-funneler, and thus to know bin Laden's whereabouts. Dan and his muscular interrogation team want to know this as well. "When you lie to me," Dan tells him, "I hurt you."
For the next 20 minutes or so, we see Ammar held down on the floor while a wet towel is placed over his face and suffocating gushes of water are poured over it. We see him pulled around on his hands and knees by a dog collar affixed to his neck. We see him crammed into a coffin-size metal box, which is then slammed shut. At one point, his pants are pulled down, exposing him to the newly arrived female agent.
Here, in the usual way of these things, we might expect Chastain's character to express an eloquent disgust intended to prompt a proper response to what we're seeing. But Maya is cooly professional. When Ammar looks at her and says, "Please help me," she tells him, "You can help yourself by being truthful."
Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal (with whom she also collaborated on the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker), simply show us what happened, leaving us to come to our own conclusions about the CIA's dubious methods. The filmmakers assume, refreshingly, that we are intelligent enough to do so. Before the movie's release, it was decried on the right (by people who hadn't seen it) as a commercial for the reelection of President Obama, which it certainly isn't. (Obama is only seen in a passing shot on a television screen.) More recently, critics on the left (some of whom hadn't seen it either) have been condemning the film as an endorsement of torture. That this is likewise untrue will be evident to anyone who actually watches the picture.
Ammar's brutal torment dislodges one tiny shred of information, but it proves useless at first. Much of the rest of the movie focuses on Maya's dogged pursuit of leads over the ensuing years, processing intelligence, assembling connections. She disdains brutal interrogations, which have proved to be almost entirely ineffective. We travel with her to Afghanistan and Pakistan in pursuit of leads. When she finally feels that she has determined bin Laden's location, in a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, she flies back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to persuade her cautious superiors to organize a raid that will take him out. Agency director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) doesn't share her conviction that bin Laden is actually present in the Abbottabad compound, and is reluctant to take the risk of mounting an operation in a sovereign country. But as another analyst asks, "How do you evaluate the risk of not doing something?"
Along the way, Bigelow stages a number of extraordinary action scenes: a frenzied attempt to triangulate a terrorist cell-phone signal in the teeming streets of Peshawar, an explosive encounter with a duplicitous informant, a ferocious machine-gun attack on a lone agent. And while there are no more detainee-beatings, we are shown the other lengths to which the Agency will go pry out information. (In one scene, a CIA operative marches a reluctant source into a Kuwait City auto dealership and buys him a brand-new Lamborghini on the spot.)
The movie of course concludes with the assault on bin Laden's compound—a long, tour-de-force sequence informed by what screenwriter Boal says was extensive research and interviews with key personnel. Seeing off the team of Navy SEALs who have been assembled for the operation, Maya tells them, "Bin Laden is there, and you're going to kill him for me." And—spoilers are clearly impossible here—they do.
The movie is entirely concerned with process. Maya herself is a cipher—we know nothing about her life or her friends (she doesn't seem to have any), only about her grim dedication to her goal. And while Dan, the brutal interrogator, briefly expresses a certain soul-sickness about his ugly job ("I've gotta do something normal for a while," he says, electing to rotate back to the States), none of the many other characters in the film take time out to express moral reservations about what they're doing (even when an unarmed woman is gunned down). In addition, the movie's score, by Alexandre Desplat, is meticulously restrained, almost subliminal; galloping electro- percussion and triumphal brass fanfares are nowhere in evidence.
This is a singular film. We see what is happening, and we're allowed to have our own thoughts about it, and to carry them with us out of the theatre. It's a movie that follows you home.