Film review: Zero Dark Thirty - No easy answers on the road to Bin Laden

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I'm glad that it was Kathryn Bigelow in charge of Zero Dark Thirty, an account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It's not because she's a brilliant action director, though she is. And it's not because The Hurt Locker (2008), her previous movie, is one of the best pictures from the so-called War on Terror, though it is. I'm glad principally because she brings something to a difficult, incendiary story that another director – a male director – would not, perhaps could not, have done.

A Ridley Scott or a Michael Mann would probably have made a hard-hitting, professional job of the material. But I think Bigelow invests her hard-hitting professional job with something else, a thoughtful ambiguity that just doesn't allow for simple responses. With her screenwriter, Mark Boal, she conveys the nature of counterterrorism as a long game, complicated, sometimes brutal, often exasperating, and she does it without sensationalism.

People will go to Zero Dark Thirty wanting different things. Some might expect a triumphant yahoo for American know-how and resolve. Others might look for an indictment of torture as a means of intelligence gathering. It offers neither of these. Boldly, it has no action hero. It has a protagonist, but not one who's armed or field-experienced. This would be a CIA analyst named Maya, a willowy, pale-skinned redhead whom men would naturally underestimate. "Washington says she's a killer," someone remarks, but she's not that kind of killer. When she first visits a CIA "black site" in Pakistan to watch a pro named Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a detainee by waterboarding, Maya observes with her arms folded tight across her chest, and her gaze flinches from it just like anyone else's would.

She proves to be steely, though, and one suspects that Bigelow, herself a woman in a man's world, knew exactly how she wanted Jessica Chastain to carry the part. Some have compared Chastain's role to that of Claire Danes as Carrie in the TV drama Homeland – both driven and obsessed by the job, and both allegedly based on actual CIA operatives. Maya is no bipolar loose cannon, however. The film hasn't furnished her with a backstory: the work is all she has, the hard grind of desk-bashing, checking the data, following the leads, arguing the case, making a nuisance of herself to the bosses. One imagines she wouldn't make great company – and that it wouldn't matter a jot to her. Bigelow and Boal aren't interested in explaining this woman; they just want us to feel how it might be to live in her skin.

This also means creating an impression of time, of years slowly circling the plughole. Opening on a dark screen to the babble of 9/11 (you'll hear a heartbreaking phonecall between an operator and a woman trapped in the burning tower), the film shuttles between real-life atrocities and the backroom legwork of analysts, spooks, security professionals – and interrogators. At one point we get a glimpse of Obama on television saying, "America doesn't torture", which creates its own frisson of moral vertigo. The waterboarding, the beatings, the dog collars, all the stuff you've heard about is here, and perhaps some you haven't – the spectacle of a man being forced inside a small wooden box is as harrowing as any. Is this an abhorrent crime? Would the information be impossible to gain by other means? The film isn't saying either way; it is asking us to make up our own minds.

Agonies are inflicted on both sides. Maya loses colleagues in the field, and her own life comes under threat. But something more than professionalism is now spurring her on: "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job." Who does she think she is – Joan of Arc? Well, maybe it is destiny calling her on, but she's too close-mouthed to say any more. As the hunt continues, most of her frustration is directed at her cautious superiors, but we get a compelling sense of her inching closer and closer to her quarry. Consultation reaches the upper echelons of the CIA, and there's a telling scene when the big chief himself (nicely underplayed by James Gandolfini) canvasses his experts on the identity of the mystery man in the Abbottabad compound. Is it "him"? None of the men will stick his neck out. "Sixty per cent certain," says one. "Eighty per cent," says another. At the end of the table Maya says, definitively, "One hundred per cent" – because she's a true believer, and she's done the work.

Having led the charge towards Bin Laden, of course, Maya must be a bystander once the raid is mounted. After so much procedural this climactic passage ups the pace violently, though in an odd way it unfolds with less tension than one might expect. Aside from an accident (non-fatal) with a helicopter, the two teams of Navy SEALs invade the fortress compound and take out their target with such methodical efficiency that it seems to pass in a blur. Bigelow partly films it in a greenish tint, replicating the effect of men stalking through the dark in night-vision goggles. Doors are blown, shots are fired, children cower in bedrooms. Again, humanity is balanced against ruthlessness: a woman who throws herself across her husband's body is herself shot dead, but Bigelow also shows the faces of those whimpering, terrified children. Hardly a concession amid the bloodletting, but at least she bothered to put them there.

It's not unreasonable to assume that a man would have directed these sequences in a more gung-ho fashion. That goes for the whole film. Bigelow's ambivalent touch is powerfully in play right at the end as Maya presides over the mission's success: no hugs or whoops for her. She's identified Bin Laden's corpse and, as it were, signed off on the project.

We last see her sitting alone in an army plane, looking exhausted and lost. Her last 10 years have led up to this night, and her gaze seems to contemplate an awful vacancy. The pilot informs her that she's the only passenger – where's she going to? It's another question that haunts this troubling and fiercely well-made film.

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