Zero Dark Thirty

No cost is too great—up to and including torture—to get bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty
VENGEANCE IS HERS: Jessica Chastain's Maya devotes herself, body and soul, to the capture of Osama bin Laden in 'Zero Dark Thirty.' Photograph by Jonathan Olley

John Wayne's Genghis Khan once told Susan Hayward's pagan princess, "You're beautiful in your wrath." Kathryn Bigelow's lauded-to-the-stratosphere Zero Dark Thirty has a rage-crush on Jessica Chastain—she of flaming hair, sturdy cheekbones, huge wounded mouth and brimming eyes.

Maybe the people who thought Chastain's mother in The Tree of Life was too symbolic to live will be happier this time; now she plays all three of the Furies at once.

If 9/11 was personal to anyone, it's the spook known only as "Maya" (if that's really her name; when someone goes around named after the Veil of Illusion, that's a symbol). Weaker men might have moved on and let a cornered Osama bin Laden die slowly by kidney failure—but not Maya.

Zero Dark Thirty takes place over a decade, between 9/11 and the final killing of the madman in 2011. Maya has no personal life ("I'm not the girl who fucks," she says, as if meaningless sex or Christian warrior chastity were the only options). She has no backstory.

Maya is contrasted with the film's only other woman, a much warmer CIA associate named Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Jessica is shrewd enough, but she has a soft little chin made for the tickling, and she's even planning to bake a cake as a treat for a key informant. Is it possible to fight a war on terror without monomania? Zero Dark Thirty says no, and Jennifer goes out of the picture in an unsurprising way, to winch up Maya's need to soldier on.

Zero Dark Thirty's opening torture scenes have rustled up plenty of controversy. I, however, see no controversy: Zero Dark Thirty is clearly in favor of torture. The rough stuff is phased out because of Obama, and when Maya and her team get the news from 60 Minutes, you can detect the sinking feeling in the room. Later, there are lines about the impossibility of confirming the bin Laden location with the prisoners: Gitmo internees are allowed to lawyer up nowadays.

Until then, Zero Dark Thirty indulges Cheneyian fantasies about the effectiveness of enhanced methods, complete with the bad-movie scene of the prisoner's defiance: "You're just a garbage man in the corporation," shouts the Arab who needs a lesson in manners from the Ph.D. (in torture?) who is racking him. Zero Dark Thirty saves its own face by insisting on the cost of torture—the cost to Maya, that is. Bigelow keeps cutting to the shock and sadness on her actor-surrogate's face until you barely know who's getting it worse: the suspect or the duty-bound woman.

Bigelow deserves her reputation as an action director in this very long film's centerpiece: the helicopter mission into Pakistan on bin Laden's compound. This is expert work. Cutting across from our expectations, the SEALS are as hairy as bears instead of the shaven-headed musclemen we expect from Michael Bay movies.

Bigelow alternates intense shots of the airborne ambush with night-vision footage, swirling with gold embers. The armored fighters are crowned with rows of lenses; it's an outer-space invasion, conducted around a maze of wailing children and wives. The pity and lunacy of war become clear; it's the finest part of a movie that sprawls terribly.

This payoff is postponed, but various other terror attacks keep the film rolling. Composer Alexandre Desplat arranges some John Barry horns to remind us we're watching a spy movie instead of ordinary people tapping at keyboards and ignoring their lunches. New figures emerge (such as Mark Strong and Mark Duplass), while the old cycles continue. There's always a forlorn Christmas tree in the officer's club, and the muezzins in Pakistan seem to wail 24 hours a day.

The film's numbskull side manifests itself when it implies that no one else remembers September 11 except for Maya and that the attack's casualties (heard calling 911 during the film's beginning) all wanted bloody revenge.

"Kill him for me," Maya tells the SEALS. The last bathetic shot of Maya facing a world without her quarry could be scored to Peggy Lee's hit: Is that all there is to an assassination? Is that all there is?

Zero Dark Thirty

157 MIN R

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