Despite all the praise heaped upon "Zero Dark Thirty" by the usual heapers, the movie should really awaken audiences to the moral failure of an American foreign policy created by the administration of George W. Bush. We all grew up in a nation that did not torture prisoners, kidnap people off the streets, send prisoners to other countries to be tortured by foreign experts, arrest suspects without charges, refuse them legal assistance, and imprison them indefinitely; in short, our government betrayed some of the most important concepts that defined America, that emphasized the exceptionalism that the conservatives constantly bray about.
Based on events from recent history and with characters based on real people, the film documents the decade-long search for the man Bush initially wanted "dead or alive," but later declared irrelevant. To establish the motivation for its long story, it begins with an aural montage of voices from the tragedy of the World Trade Center, then moves through time and space to a CIA base in the Middle East, where an agent, Dan (Jason Clarke), conducts a distressing interrogation of a shackled al-Qaeda prisoner, which goes on for some days and many movie minutes. He beats the man, denies him food, drink, and sleep, locks him in a small box, and of course, employs that favorite technique, waterboarding.
Although halfheartedly neutral in its approach, the script inclines toward justification of all those methods that the practitioners, with a nice sense of euphemism, called "enhanced interrogation," and most of us call torture. The main character, a CIA agent known only as Maya (Jessica Chastain), exhibits some faint distaste at her first view of the beatings, but mostly remains impassive throughout; Dan, on the other hand, carries out his job with coldblooded and ruthless detachment.
At one point in a meeting of senior agents, someone sorrowfully mentions that after all the negative publicity about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, they must employ other methods of obtaining information. To her credit, Maya pursues her own investigation by other means, depending upon different kinds of questioning, following a complicated thread of al-Qaeda connections and familial relationships to determine exactly how Obama bin Laden communicates with his men. She also combines human intelligence — undercover observers and agents — with the agency's considerable arsenal of technology, including satellites, electronic monitoring, and telephone intercepts; as she works through the careful examination of evidence, the application of logical analysis, and some leaps of imagination, her search becomes a kind of detective story.
Throughout the many years of her investigation, she encounters a number of obstacles, including suicide bombings, assassination attempts, and postings to other parts of the world. Her most difficult problems, however, occur within the Agency itself, where her supervisors refuse to accept her interpretation of events and the information she gathers. She works to convince them of her conclusions about Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan, then harasses and hectors them for months before the head of the Agency and, presumably, the president himself sign off on the mission to attack his compound.
The movie's success depends mostly on its procedural content, the depiction of the nuts and bolts of espionage and the methods by which Maya and her colleagues track down their quarry. Like "Argo," another film about a complicated, dangerous Middle Eastern mission, "Zero Dark Thirty" sustains a terrific tension even though the audience knows the outcome. The long sequence showing the attack of the Navy SEALS on Osama bin Laden's compound, much of it filmed through night vision goggles, also features another euphemism, collateral damage, as the SEALS kill some women and children in their search through the buildings.
Despite its gritty authenticity in style and subject, it's hard to believe that a relatively low-level agent like Maya could browbeat her bosses relentlessly and obnoxiously, especially considering the Agency's history as a haven for Ivy Leaguers drunk on patriotism. Jessica Chastain appears handcuffed by a script that provides almost no context for her character and actions; she exhibits very little emotion, maintaining a constant deadpan in just about every situation. Much of her performance matches the laborious literalness of the director's approach, a long slog through some exciting history.