The scene you may be expecting from Zero Dark Thirty comes at the very end of the nearly three-hour film, as director Kathryn Bigelow precisely recreated the raid on the house in Pakistan that led to the Navy SEAL team assassinating Osama bin Laden. It's a spectacularly tense and realistic scene, full of the same adrenaline you remember from Bigelow's Point Break and The Hurt Locker, and suffused with both films' sense of male camaraderie and macho strength.
But the two hours that come before that tell a very different story, with a woman--Jessica Chastain's Maya--at the center and a much different kind of drive that led to finding bin Laden. The 10-year manhunt, including setbacks like the 2005 London bombings and several CIA deaths, is recreated in unbelievable detail, with screenwriter Mark Boal's journalist's eye cannily setting up the major and minor players who led to that dramatic SEAL Team Six raid. And before we even meet Maya or any other agents, Bigelow bombards us with an audio recreation of 9/11, using phone calls made from inside the World Trade Center; it's a harrowing and unforgettable scene, setting up the incredible stakes for finding bin Laden, and plunging us immediately into that post-9/11 atmosphere of fear and lust for revenge.
Maya embodies both of things perfectly, though it takes a while to see it; we first meet her as a silent, shocked witness to a CIA agent (Jason Clarke) as he tortures an al-Qaeda detainee, derisively calling him "bro" and promising "If you lie to me, I will hurt you." With her delicate features and flowing red hair Maya looks out of place in the dingy torture chamber, but she knows what she's doing; when the detainee begs her for mercy, she refuses, setting the tone for her tough and unrelenting character as well as the movie's attitude toward torture. Bigelow shoots the torture scenes in grim, uncomfortable detail, but she also allows that such intense interrogation leads to a key piece of information that helps Maya hunt down bin Laden. Though Zero Dark Thirty deals with incredibly politicized topics, its only bias is toward the devoted CIA agents who were willing to do absolutely anything to find their man.
Though embedded deeply in the dirty and sometimes dull work of the CIA, from tapping phones to bribing sources and, yes, torturing them, Zero Dark Thirty's winding story dovetails occasionally with more famous history-- a brief sequence of the 2005 London bombings is unbearably tense, and protests in Pakistan surrounding U.S. drone strikes affect one character we've come to like without even knowing his name. For anyone with only a passing knowledge of modern CIA history, though, there are plenty of surprises, from the details of how we found bin Laden's hideout to a few moments of explosive violence that, to me at least, came as a complete surprise. The film moves at a methodical, professional pace as Maya conducts her investigations, but in the occasional pops of suspense Bigelow's action directing skills truly shine.
It's frankly incredible that, in the middle of such a complicated story, Zero Dark Thirty presents such a complex character in Maya, a tough woman in an impossible job who sidesteps every imaginable possible cliche. Everything about her, from the way she wears a scarf over her head when interrogating a detainee to the false smiles she gives to put powerful men at ease, speaks to her unusual position as a woman in the Middle East, but that contrast never becomes text, just another fascinating layer in a story with no simple conclusions. Not all of the characters around her are equally as complex-- Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau and Joel Edgerton are just a few of the big names who are gone as soon as they arrive-- but Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini and especially Clarke all make their impact, though all somewhat overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Chastian. Like the woman at its center, Zero Dark Thirty exudes a constant, quiet confidence, telling a story with an ending we all know and making it feel thrilling, suspenseful, and completely vital.