The film starts with a dark screen, no visuals, with us just hearing the recorded voices of the people who died on 9-11 while calling on their relatives.
We then meet Maya as she watches a colleague, Dave (Jason Clarke), interrogate and torture a suspected terrorist, which counters Pres. Obama’s claim on TV that “America does not tolerate torture”. Over the next 9 years, we see Maya becoming more and more obsessed as she performs her job of hunting down the world’s most notorious terrorist, just like Carrie (Claire Danes) in the hit TV series, “Homeland”. The difference is that her job is for real while Carrie’s is fiction.
We see Maya growing and changing through the years, especially after seeing some colleagues (led by Jennifer Ehle) killed by a suicide bomber. From the fairly new agent who cringes while watching someone gets tortured, she becomes this unflinching crusader who says “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this and then I’ll kill Bin Laden.” When the CIA chief (James Gandolfini) asks who she is, she replies: “I’m the motherfucker who found this place, Sir.” (Bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan.)
It took ten years for the greatest manhunt in history to end: from the Twin Towers bombing in 2001 to the storming of Bin Laden’s compound on May 2, 2011 at zero dark thirty (or 12:30 midnight). In the film’s 40-minute climax, Director Kathryn Bigelow uses handheld camera work to follow the SEALS do their job of smoking out Bin Laden and his cohorts. We watch it the way the SEALS do, through the dark haze of night vision glasses. We already know the outcome shown widely in TV newscasts, but it still comes out very suspenseful.
Unlike “Argo” that’s also based on a true story but is embroidered on screen to make it more cinematic, this one is told without any embellishments. It’s more of just a straightforward look at what happened in ten years of relentless work to take revenge on the killer of more than 3,000 people on 9-11. Along the way, other terrorists acts are depicted like the bombings in Saudi Arabia in 2004, a bus in London in 2005 and the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan in 2007. Director Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, (the same team who won the Oscar best pic for “The Hurt Locker”), are now being widely criticized for promoting torture and getting access to classified documents to do the film. No doubt the controversy is the main reason why Bigelow was bypassed as Oscar best director nominee. But there’s no doubting that Jessica Chastain deserves her best actress nomination (she already won in the Golden Globe.)
The role of Maya is difficult to portray as it’s not the usual well defined character. We know very little of her past, except that she was recruited fresh from high school. She has no history, no lovelife, just fully grounded in the present and in her obsessive determination to find Bin Laden, even defying and threatening her superiors just to nail him. Chastain has shown her competence as an actress in “The Debt”, “The Help”, “Tree of Life”, “Lawless” but she’s at her best in “Zero Dark Thirty”.
She also stars in another current hit in the U.S., “Mama”, making her undoubtedly the actress of the moment. She’ll next be seen playing the title role in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”. Will her compelling portrayal of the uncompromising Maya bag her an Oscar? If the backlash against the movie won’t affect the voters, then she just might clinch it. But she’ll surely get tough competition from Jennifer Lawrence who also won in the Golden Globe for “Silver Linings Playbook”.