Jessica Chastain as Maya, stationed in a covert base overseas in ZERO DARK THIRTY (Sony Pictures)

Jessica Chastain as Maya, stationed in a covert base overseas in ZERO DARK THIRTY (Columbia Pictures)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Produced by Mark Boal, Bigelow & Megan Ellison
Written by Boal
Released by Columbia Pictures
USA. 156 min. Rated R
With Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, Callan Mulvey, Fares Fares, Reda Kateb & Stephen Dillane

Much ink and pixels have been spent on the solemn and methodical Zero Dark Thirty, due to a controversy that has upstaged, if not overwhelmed, this fact-meets-fiction version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  The film has recently been slammed, perhaps as backlash to its early critical raves, but on close examination, it’s not a work to readily dismiss.

In the very beginning, director Kathryn Bigelow gracefully and powerfully depicts the events of the World Trade Center attacks through voice-overs over a pitch-black screen. She lets the viewer fill in the visuals. Compare her sensitive approach to Denys Arcand’s heavy-handedness in the Academy Award-winning The Barbarian Invasions (2003), which included actual footage of one of the hijacked planes crashing into a tower. Not only was it too soon and too strong an image, but it completely jarred the viewer—the movie was about the inner reflections of a group of bourgeois French Canadian intellectuals. Go figure. However, based on some responses to ZDT, one issue is just as antagonizing—the role of torture in the intelligence-gathering that lead to Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideaway.

Bigelow unflinchingly depicts the so-called enhanced interrogation of a naked detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), in one of the C.I.A.’s black sites—detention centers located outside the legal jurisdiction of the United States. What follows is a fact-based compilation of Geneva Convention violations, including waterboarding and sexual humiliation.  The only person on screen that might share a viewer’s revulsion to the degradation is a young, very attractive female C.I.A. undercover officer, who remains in the background initially.  When she first enters the barrack, for instance, she gags from the stench. The prisoner has soiled his pants.

At the next grilling, the officer, Maya, is the good cop to the unhinged bad cop, Dan, played by Jason Clarke. (“When you lie to me I hurt you. This is what defeat looks like, bro.”) She warns the prisoner that “You can help yourself by being truthful,” and thereby becomes part of the process, and so does, indirectly, the audience.  Ammar eventually reveals one crucial bit of information that will lead to the name of Bin Laden’s courier when he sits down with Maya over a meal of hummus, in a scene without an overt physical or verbal threat—for the moment.

Yet the question lingers, how much did the brutality in the earlier interrogations influence his tentative cooperation with the Americans? In other words, according to Bigelow and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Mark Boal, you can’t take torture out of the equation even though, for the rest of the movie, old-fashion detective work leads investigators to Bin Laden. Whether the C.I.A. would have received the information without coercive tactics is left completely unaddressed, yet the film hardly advocates for torture. As depicted here, the brutal treatment of Ammar fails to obtain details that could prevent a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.

Played by Jessica Chastain, the cool and detached Maya remains understated and elusive for much of the film. She’s not unemotional—she rails at the red tape and presses onward, sounding off a call of urgency in the face of the C.I.A. and F.B.I.’s plodding and pondering. But mostly she’s a calming and steadfast presence—she’s so confidant, so certain of her intuition. Because no reason is given for her single-minded zeal, a viewer can project almost any motivation upon her. We don’t even know her back story, only that she joined the agency after high school and that she doesn’t have a private life or friends.

Like Claire Dane’s volatile, bipolar C.I.A. analyst in TV’s Homeland, Maya’s a one-woman crusade, out on her own, connecting the dots as the film becomes a more even-keeled crime procedural. (The two sleuths even share the same black pant suit wardrobe, though Maya doesn’t sleep with any of her sources.) Bigelow has come up with the anti-Homeland: no out-of-left-field plot swerves that strain credibility, no displays of histrionic emotion.  However, Maya’s lack of introspection undermines the heft the subject matter demands. After the first 45 minutes, the script skirts around the torture issue, tacitly admitting its role in the killing of Bin Laden. No wonder there have been so many conflicting reactions.

Senators, from both parties, have criticized the film for overemphasizing the use of torture, but it’s a bit of a stretch, as they state in a letter to Sony Pictures, to assume that the movie is “misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location” of Bin Laden. According to Senator Dianne Feinstein, torture did not play a significant role in finding him, based on a recently released 6,000-page study by the Senate Intelligence Committee of the C.I.A. detention and interrogation program. The merit of Senator Feinstein’s rebuke lies in the definition of “significant.”

Yet the depictions of torture in the film are not off-base. In a December 21st letter to C.I.A. employees, the acting director of the organization, Michael Morell, states that “Some [intelligence related to Bin Laden’s location] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.” He has gone on record criticizing the film for exaggerating the role of coercive interrogations in producing valuable information: “Multiple streams of intelligence led C.I.A. analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad.” Additionally, George W. Bush’s C.I.A. chief, Michael V. Hayden, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that instrumental in the hunt for the Al Qaeda leader “was information provided by three C.I.A. detainees, all of whom had been subjected to some form of enhanced interrogation.”

Bigelow is absolutely right when she stated earlier this week that depiction is not endorsement. But her film short-changes the conversation by presenting a limited angle on the elephant in the room: the effectiveness and necessity of torture. Bigelow’s definition of “significant” obviously differs from Senator Feinstein’s, but, unfortunately, the discourse ends there. Documentaries have scrutinized these issues, among them the powerful Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney, a fervent critic of ZDT.

Make no mistake, this is a movie movie to keep you on the edge of your seat until the final credits, especially in the last half-hour, the minute-by-minute storming by Navy SEALS of the Bin Laden fortress-like compound. Boal has obviously compressed events and conflated many of the actual players into Maya, who pops up in the right (or, more often than not, the worst) place.  (Morell has countered that “the selfless commitment of hundreds of officers” were involved in the mission’s success, rather than the dramatized lone investigator.)

Even if you feel immersed in the Jordan/India-for-Pakistan location filming, the casting will occasionally throw you. James Gandolfini may be a dead ringer for (presumably) Leon Panetta, but he’s too well known an actor to slip into a few scenes unnoticed. The oddest casting choice is Chris Pratt, the dim slacker from the sitcom Parks and Recreation (also filmed as a hand-held pseudo-documentary, coincidentally). He’s one of the SEALS on the covert mission to Abbottabad. At any moment, you think he might break into a goofy grin and stare directly into the camera.

However, no one can come away from the film feeling triumphant or celebratory, though Maya achieves her goal (no spoiler alert is necessary, I hope). The mood is melancholic and reflective in the subdued last shot, a close-up of Maya, with tears of relief streaming down her cheeks. For what she had to do? For feeling relieved? Bigelow has delivered a film that is, at best, much more nuanced than the norm, especially for a major studio release, allowing viewers to think for themselves.