Kathryn Bigelow's kill-bin-Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty is cool, brisk and packed with impressively real-sounding intelligence jargon. It presents itself as a work of journalism — just the facts, ma'am — but there's no doubting its perspective. It's the story of America's brilliant, righteous revenge.
The prologue is a black screen with sounds of Sept. 11: a hubbub of confusion and then, most terribly, the voice of a woman crying out to a 911 operator who tries vainly to assure her she'll be OK. The recording is genuine.
What follows takes place two years later, at an off-the-grid CIA "black site." An al-Qaida prisoner is strung up and waterboarded by a big, bearded agent named Dan (Jason Clarke). It's brutal and ugly, and the film's protagonist, a newly transferred CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) quietly registers horror.
But after that Sept. 11 prologue, the prisoner's treatment doesn't seem wrong. More important, the information Dan extracts from that man — after more attempts and a bit of subterfuge — will lead, over the next decade, to bin Laden's courier, who will lead to bin Laden.
This week, I've been caught up in controversy over a magazine review I wrote of Zero Dark Thirty, which I called both phenomenal — the best movie of the year — and morally problematic. I've been attacked from both sides as either too knee-jerk liberal about torture or too tolerant of pro-torture propaganda. But the jury is out on whether the courier intel came from torture: Sen. Dianne Feinstein and author Peter Bergen say no, author Mark Bowden and Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal's CIA sources say yes.
For her part, Bigelow has never been a filmmaker with a strong moral point of view. The Hurt Locker begins with a quote from iconoclastic journalist Chris Hedges likening war to an addictive drug. Bigelow identifies with adrenaline addicts, most often men but here a woman — although a woman whose role in the story is to be more macho than the men.
Chastain's Maya has to bully colleagues who've been publicly humiliated after the failure of Iraq intelligence about weapons of mass destruction; she needs them to take more risks now, in the name of catching bin Laden. She's the one who tells Navy SEALs in an airplane hangar the object of their mission.
There's been speculation that Maya was inspired by the same covert CIA agent who's the basis for Claire Danes' bipolar Carrie in Homeland, but the parts and actresses could hardly be more different. Chastain's Maya is stripped down to pure will — you know what she's feeling by the tension in her body. Killing bin Laden has become a religious quest, a counterjihad.
And she's frustrated that so much of her job comes down to "pitching," as in Hollywood. There's always another professionally skeptical CIA bureaucrat to be sold on the probable whereabouts of the courier. Then he'll have to sell his superior, who'll have to sell the commander in chief.
Bigelow makes those pitches hum. She's a wizard at alternating fast-moving, streaky shots with shots that suddenly give you your bearings, so you're always one step behind, rushing to catch up. In the incredibly tense climax, the SEALs' night-vision goggles turn the compound green: The camera follows them through doors and up stairs, the only sound the bouncing of equipment, the bleating of sheep, and then, after the firing begins, the sobbing of children.
The carnage is quick and conclusive. Bigelow doesn't serve up a Hollywood shootout, and the way the SEALs pump extra bullets into prone bodies — among them bin Laden's — is disturbing. But for all the supposed neutrality and the sad, ambiguous final shot, the ending is happy. We got him.
After Sept. 11, Dick Cheney said that to fight terrorists America had to embrace the "dark side," and Bigelow has given that dark side her heroine's blessing. Zero Dark Thirty is mercilessly gripping, a great thriller. But it's not a great work of art. To be divided about it is not to be wishy-washy. It's to say, "I'm blown away by this. But given the larger implications of this event, is that enough?"