After the 9/11 attacks, people questioned the timeliness of movies that used the tragedy as a backdrop. When movies like United 93 and World Trade Center began to market, the public asked: Is it too soon? Though Zero Dark Thirty isn’t specifically about 9/11, it is about the man who claimed responsibility for the attacks. More specifically, it’s about a CIA officer’s search for Osama Bin Laden and the impact it has on her life. And while the movie’s release was embroiled in controversies and news reports about how and where it gained its information, it still stands as one of the year’s best, not for its subject matter, but for the way it handles the characters, the immense task, and urgency of it all.
Jessica Chastain plays CIA agent Maya, a rookie to the game. Sitting in on her first interrogation in Pakistan, she finds herself aiding other agents as they waterboard a detainee. As she learns the ropes, being trained by her superior Dan (Jason Clarke), Maya becomes more and more hardened as the search for the most wanted man in the world consumes her. Brilliant and committed to her cause, she follows leads that ultimately result in taking down a man who had a $25-million bounty on his head. The search, which takes years, involves trained professionals, politicians, and methods that came to light as the American public lived through a war on terror. Hovering over Maya’s shoulder, audiences see what it’s like as a government agent in the trenches, doing what she knows how to do.
Like Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, ZDT is a taut and gripping thriller that follows its lead from a psychological angle. As Maya sifts through the sands of information, she finds the bread crumbs that bring her to Usama Bin Laden’s doorstep. What separates ZDT is its political staging, its spotlight on history, and the grand finale — a secret raid during the dead of night under the Pakistani government’s nose. Watching trained and efficient soldiers infiltrate a compound, secure loads of information, and bring back a body in a bag isn’t for the faint of heart, and for all of the cautious tip-toeing to that conclusion, the last act is tense with occasional and brutal violence. It’s great that ZDT doesn’t try to insert any sort of agenda or bias here because, as an American watching this movie, it was enough to deal with my own emotional ideas. The last shot of the movie focuses on Maya’s face. Years of pain, pressure, and ambition melt away, and she becomes human again. It begs the question — how will she live the rest of her life?