Film Reviews

Hard-wired Jessica Chastain can’t stop hunting.

Zero Dark Thirty is both a war story and a personal drama.

Maya has been a CIA operative for l2 years, and from the beginning she has been involved in the Find bin Laden industry. It’s a job that has proved exasperating, full of lies and blind alleys. But Maya, a loner, has dug in, barreling through the various levels of opposition from all sides, including resistance to “female” leadership. She has learned that mere intelligence and encyclopedic savvy are not enough; she knows how and when to talk tough, when to call herself a “motherfucker.”

Beginning with a controversial torture sequence, which it perhaps does not need, Zero Dark Thirty, maybe as tough as Maya herself, is relentless in its version of the truth. The movie risks an elliptical narrative, in which Maya is featured in brief scenes that do not give an Oscar-bound Jessica Chastain much space to reveal herself to the movie audience. But Chastain performs the task of fixing her character in our heads: She’s one of those film actresses–and there are few of them–who does not need dialogue to show us what she wants us to see. In the end it is her tenacity and just plain stubbornness that win the day.

Helmer Kathryn Bigelow has Maya-like integrity in her direction, slowing the narrative when certain points must be made. Not all of the information is necessarily flattering to this single-minded (usually) quiet powerhouse. The movie covers nine years in Maya’s pursuit–and it shows us the inner workings of the spy game–called by its practitioners “tradecraft.”

Chastain further distinguishes herself by single-handedly holding the somewhat wobbly first 30 minutes of this docudrama in place while it gears itself up for further unfolding. The suspenseful last half-hour is affecting even though we know the ending. The movie has made us care, and that does not happen accidentally.

The movie is also so well staged that it can jolt us with violent surprises that are not visceral asides but completely valid thematically. People around Maya are dying, and we’re shown that it is her careful timing–not acting too soon–that often saves her.

The supporting cast here is exemplary, with character actors like James Gandolfini (barely recognizable), Harold Parrineau, Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle keeping up but not surpassing Chastain’s performance. The tour-de-force climax–the nighttime raid on bin Laden’s compound–is fascinatingly filmed (no explanations given here), and the final shots reveal, with some irony, something we’ve only guessed about Maya. It’s a terrific and revealing ending for this, one of the best movies of the year.