This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s riveting portrayal of the CIA manhunt for Osama bin-Laden, scrupulously avoids a cathartic or celebratory tone. Its manner is clinical, non-judgmental, and ostensibly objective. (This aesthetic strategy is at the heart of the controversy about the film among certain liberal political commentators, who clearly would have preferred a simplistic, black-and-white treatment of the story's morally troubling aspects. The complaints about an erroneous historical bit are something of a red herring.) The picture follows the efforts of a young CIA investigator (Jessica Chastain) through years of investigation, blind alleys, and bureaucratic obstacles. The film climaxes with the 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bigelow stages, shoots, and edits the movie with a stoic, methodical efficiency. It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly crafted film. Most impressively, this expertise is in the service of rendering moral ambiguity. An implicit question of the film is whether the success in taking out Osama justified the reprehensible conduct that characterized the investigation. The film is forthright about the torture and brutality the CIA employed, and Jessica Chastain's protagonist is fairly repellent. She is an asocial, quarrelsome monomaniac who is loyal to colleagues only insofar as they support her agenda for the mission. The casting of the delicate-looking, soft-edged Chastain is about the only concession the film makes to audiences. An actress with a more domineering presence all but certainly would have made the character too monstrous for viewers to take. Chastain is compelling throughout, and she’s heartbreaking in the film’s epilogue, in which she, Bigelow, and Boal depict the pathos of the woman’s unrelenting obsession. For her, victory proves a loss of purpose, and she cannot help but grieve. It’s a great scene, and easily the film’s most powerful moment. It’s of a thematic piece with the rest of the picture: the goal is achieved, but there are no winners. Greig Fraser provided the excellent cinematography. (It’s most impressive in the raid sequence, which is all but entirely shown through the green hues of the SEALs’ night-vision goggles.) Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg are credited with the superb editing.