We never really know anything about Maya (a wonderful Jessica Chastain), except that she’s a CIA agent on the all-consuming hunt for the world’s most wanted man and that underneath her pale, fragile features lies a steely and quasi-desperate determinism that won’t be discouraged. Over the long years that Zero Dark Thirty effortlessly spans, you’ll never find out whether she has a family waiting for her at home, or why and how she was recruited out of high school to join the agency, or even her last name.
That’s a far cry from the other politically-charged procedural of sorts taking place partly in the Middle-East, Argo, where Ben Affleck’s hero could indeed bring to mind Maya. They’re both experts in the CIA, very skilled at what they do. Sometimes their faces both are inscrutable and without emotion. “Let’s get the job done.” But in Argo, Affleck’s character places a call home to his young son, and at the end he hugs his estranged wife, making everything feel validated and everybody feel good. Zero Dark Thirty, the first post- Hurt Locker production from Kathryn Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal, never goes the easy way, and that’s why it’s such a powerhouse.
That’s also why certain groups or individuals have mercilessly piled on this film, for dubious accusations of torture-glorifying and -justifying that have been written about extensively, on both sides. Does it come as a surprise that brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques” were used by American operatives in the post-9/11 landscape, that may or may not have helped narrow down the search for Osama bin Laden? To some, yes. But if outrage is sparked only after watching Zero Dark Thirty in a movie theater, that’s a big problem in itself.
At first it seems Maya feels the same way as the audience as she uncomfortably witnesses the scenes of torture and interrogation of detainees (mainly by Jason Clarke, otherwise a friendly, burly guy who happens to have a P.H.D). But then again, maybe not; when a bloodied detainee appeals to her, her feminine figure surely a sight of possible relief amidst the stale khakis of the military, for help, she takes but a moment before issuing j a standard-issue CIA-approved answer about the man helping himself by telling the truth. After all, she’ll have to go through a lot more unpleasantness before nailing bin Laden, and no one knows that more than herself.
What Zero Dark Thirty is, is a superbly calm, cool and accept-no-B.S. recounting of the events leading up to the night of May 1st, 2011, where a strike team of Navy SEALs descended upon a compound outside of Abbottabad, Pakistan, and left with an extra body bag. (That sequence,shot at night, is one that is coursing with nail-biting suspense, even if you know the outcome, right down to the tiniest little detail. ) It’s like a stripped-down, strung-out version of The Hurt Locker, less of a compact ball of explosive than a heat-seeking, long-range nuclear missile. And it has a killer ending that is quietly devastating.
Chastain gives a stunning performance as someone who’s entire life is constructed around the elusiveness of a single man. I mentioned the comparisons with Argo before, and I want to get into them again — Affleck’s character has this kid at home, he has this on his shoulders. And yet he never leaves quite as much a powerfully striking impression as Chastain does, playing a woman with whom the audience can barely associate themselves, one who always remains a bit aloof and very much alone. Very impressive.