"What have you done for us, besides bin Laden?” James Gandolfini’s CIA director asks Jessica Chastain’s tightly wound operative Maya. “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else,” comes the reply.
She was recruited straight out of high school, she explains, and has spent the 12 years since working on a single manhunt. This terse response holds the key to what allowed journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal to overcome the odds with Zero Dark Thirty.
The first big-screen dramatisation of what’s unquestionably the most symbolic win to come out of the USA’s war on terror could have been a jingoistic embarrassment, the live-action embodiment of Team America’s infamous catchphrase. (If you want some solid nightmare material, just spend a moment or two imagining ZDT directed by Michael Bay).
Instead, by emphasising the vacuum at the core of their lead character, Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow craft a story that’s as much a tragedy in the literary sense as it is a victory in the literal sense.
The film’s gestation was far from straightforward; while you’d never know it from the final product’s killer precision, its DNA was gutted and patched back together in infancy.
Boal – having spent the better part of the noughties embedded with troops and bomb squads – developed a film centring on the unsuccessful hunt for bin Laden.
On the cusp of pre-production, news came through that bin Laden had been located and executed by Navy SEALs during a raid in Pakistan. Boal and Bigelow’s ‘military failure’ drama was dead in the water, but in its place came the more obviously cinematic arc of Zero Dark Thirty.
Boal’s script throws us in at the moral deep end, with Maya watching her more experienced colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) waterboard a detainee with suspected links to 9/11.
The scene is horrifying, and coupled with a later, similar one sparked widespread controversy that arguably scuppered ZDT’s shot at the Oscar glory it deserved (out of five noms it scored one win, for sound editing), as critics, CIA bods and John McCain variously came forward to slam the film’s “pro-torture” stance.
So, are they right?
On the one hand, no actionable info comes from the physical interrogation itself; on the other, the waterboarding sequence comes directly after the harrowingly cold opening, in which audio clips from 9/11 victims’ final phone calls play out in a crescendo against black.
At best, it’s a potent way to contextualise what follows; at worst, it’s a manipulative gambit daring us to object to what follows.
Ultimately, the film ventures no clear-cut stance on torture, but the graphic, grim, un-gorno-like manner in which it’s depicted doesn’t exactly invite air-punching glee.
ZDT is no less careful to paint its heroine in sober, unglamorous colours. Chastain was cast only after the script had been reworked, but Maya’s arc, the hollowing-out and stiffening of somebody losing their humanity in tiny increments, would work regardless of the ending.
She speaks only when necessary; her words like economical sniper fire, her face a blank slate of sculpted angles that turns increasingly mask-like. In the past, Chastain has injected moments of steeliness into soft, domestically-hued characters, but this prickly rigidity is a revelation.
Her friendship with Jennifer Ehle’s Jessica – who’s as warm and earthy as Maya is awkward and chilly – is a briefly-drawn ray of light that exists only long enough to make you miss it. Later, a young recruit tries to reach out to Maya as a mentor and is barely acknowledged; far from learning from her friend’s example, she’s become too emotionally barren to register the gesture.
There’s one scene, slotted in fairly late in between rounds of ‘spot the TV actor’ (Kyle Chandler! Michael from Lost! John bloody Barrowman!) that feels like a genuine misstep; when a vengeful Maya proclaims her intention to “smoke everybody involved in this op, and then kill bin Laden”.
It’s too generic, too ‘this time it’s personal’, and turns Maya briefly into the kind of gung-ho action hero she’s otherwise not.
Still, watching the film’s bluntly drawn moments of terror – the Marriot Hotel bombing and later the disastrous Camp Chapman rendezvous – reminds you that Bigelow is first and foremost a terrifically accomplished action director, and her partnership with Boal has once again birthed something with emotional rigour to match.
And unlike The Hurt Locker’s lead Sergeant William James, there is no what’s-next for Maya, no dazed supermarket trips or attempts to try to reintegrate into society.
We leave her crying in response to a question she can’t answer, with no way of functioning in a world where her mission is complete.
If Zero Dark Thirty portrays the CIA’s methods as necessary, it paints them equally as soul-destroying in the most literal sense.
Blu-ray extras amount to four bitesized featurettes – either the makers want the film to speak for itself, or there’s a deluxe edition on the way.