Remember the night of May 2, 2011, when the news broke of Osama bin Laden's death? A range of responses and emotions flooded Twitter and Facebook. Some scoffed, others celebrated, and few said nothing at all. It was a time of reprieve, yet questions lingered: Would bin Laden's death really put a damper on al-Qaeda and terrorism? Would it truly bring peace and satisfaction to the friends and families who lost loved ones on 9/11 and in the ongoing war on terror? Was it an act of justice or revenge? Was it all really worth it?
Given such ambiguities and a range of opinions, it should be no surprise that Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's smart and exciting thriller about the hunt for—and killing of—bin Laden appears to offer no concrete answers to such questions. But if one looks closely enough, the film's realistic, almost journalistic, aesthetic actually does provide some answers. Contrary to numerous arguments that she's impartial as a director, Bigelow (who won an Oscar for 2010's The Hurt Locker) unavoidably reveals some bias by merely portraying the story. Even more, as an artist, she is forced to choose expressions and depictions of the events, from torture scenes to the final bloody raid. Zero Dark Thirty only seems "neutral" because Bigelow, working with a script from Mark Boal, proves conflicted in her stance, caught between a sense of justice and a remorse for the detrimental implications of the operation.
But it's that mixed stance—a conflicted view held by many—that makes the film work so well. While Bigelow and Boal—who did extensive research—claim to stay true to the details, the film is truer in a different sense, in that it seems to represent their own outlook on the War on Terror, through the lens of this bin Laden narrative. It's a perspective that's willing to acknowledge that it doesn't pretend to have it all figured out, but admits to the complexities—because war, particularly this one, is no simple matter. The filmmakers' perspective steers clear of politics, of a greater polarization between left and right (and right and wrong), and goes deeper to illuminate the paradoxical nature of human experience, specifically the struggles between head and heart, justice and mercy, war and peace.
Zero Dark Thirty would in no way achieve such sincerity and complexity if not for its talented cast, including Jason Clarke as a fearsome CIA interrogator, Kyle Chandler as his stern superior, and particularly Jessica Chastain, who gives her strongest, most multifaceted performance to date. As Maya, a feisty young CIA agent committed to killing bin Laden, Chastain might just embody Bigelow's own internal conflict—resolute but uncertain, confident but confused. And as determined as Maya may be to see her goal through to the end, she often appears too physically and emotionally exhausted to finish, too weighed down by her actions.