A lot of bright people have said a lot of dumb things about Zero Dark Thirty. Some have argued that it glorifies torture by showing that "enhanced interrogation methods" were needed to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Others have argued the exact opposite: that the movie illustrates how torture failed as an intelligence-gathering technique.
I think both sides are wrong. They're also missing the point.
Zero Dark Thirty is about the work it took to track down bin Laden, including the military operation that resulted in his death. But what director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have accomplished, while a significant act of cinematic journalism, isn't merely procedural. It's about confronting the human side of something so convoluted that it seems unreal.
This film is far from perfect structurally, at times struggling to connect its three fairly distinct sections: intelligence-gathering in the Middle East, political wrangling in Washington and the raid on bin Laden's compound. A revolving door of supporting characters occasionally makes it hard to follow the narrative. Yet the story is consistently gripping, not just as an espionage thriller but as an exercise in viewer identification.
The central character is CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain), a fictionalized amalgam of various real-life figures. We first meet her in 2003, visiting a "black site" where a colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), is heading the interrogation of an al-Qaida operative. "If you lie to me, I hurt you," Dan repeatedly and calmly tells a chained man, and we see that he's dead serious.
When Maya is left alone with the prisoner, it feels like the setup for a "good cop" moment, the nurturing woman offering comfort and hope. But Maya seems to read it as a challenge, a test of whether she's got what it takes to play with the big boys. She quickly shows the prisoner that she, too, is all business.
It's no coincidence that Bigelow and Boal make their protagonist a woman; that fact and Chastain's brilliant performance are integral to Zero Dark Thirty's moral center. Maya constantly faces condescension from her colleagues. To be taken seriously, she and the other women in Zero Dark Thirty have to have bigger balls than the others in the room, even if it means taking bigger risks.
Maya's encounter with the prisoner is when the film becomes more than a timeline of choices. It's about the psychology and rationalizations behind decisions, the way people convince themselves that what they're doing is necessary, or that they're certain of something when they're not. It's also a "fog of war" tale that catches Maya at the end, when she wonders if the decisions she made have changed things for the better.