Chief among Bigelow’s assets is Jennifer Chastain, who commands the screen from the outset. Chastain plays the brilliant Maya, a young CIA agent so focused, so relentless, she almost quivers when she speaks. Nervous, but resolute, she learns that getting what she wants will require leaving bits and pieces of her humanity behind. When a beaten, disgraced Al-Qaeda prisoner pleads for Maya to help him, the film slows, then seems to stop altogether, as we see the dull light from the cell dance on Chastain’s eyes. “You can help yourself by being truthful,” she says coldly, and just like that, her transformation begins.
Critically, however, Maya never fully discards her most deeply human instincts. She slumps, wearily, after interrogation sessions, and sits frozen in grief, staring emptily ahead, following the sudden death of a friend. Bigelow blends sweeping flybys of CIA camps with these soft, momentary asides, and each time, Chastain gives us a passing glimpse of Maya’s mortality.
A counterpoint to the steely, fleetingly human Maya, fellow-interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke, blunt, easygoing), maintains a good-natured nonchalance throughout much of the film. When he’s not busy interrogating the latest captured terrorist, Dan serves as a comforting, mentor-like presence for the younger Maya. Clarke, through subtle smiles and even-tempered words, tricks us into liking Dan. He might be the film’s moral compass, or perhaps its villain. Bigelow gives us reason to believe both. Dan himself probably doesn’t know for sure.
This moral ambiguity may be the film’s greatest abiding strength. Instead of a political sermon, or alternatively, a safe narrative that dodges the complexities, Zero Dark Thirty presents its contents simply, cleanly, and fearlessly. Granted, few know the full story behind CIA interrogations following 9/11, and this film—“based on first-hand accounts of true events”—should not be misconstrued as a legitimately “true story.” But when cinema makes us think, deeply, about “true events,” their impact on our psyche, our relationships with other nations, and our understanding of ourselves, all without nudging toward some sculpted, clandestine agenda, that is something to celebrate, even if the subject-matter is terribly somber and deflating.
Late in Zero Dark Thirty, after the climax of the famous raid has crested, a Navy SEAL is called to bring up a body bag for bin Laden. Having been standing guard along the compound’s exterior, he must climb three stories to bin Laden’s chamber, passing each room (torn apart, blood-splattered, bullet-ridden). Hearing a soft, muted whimpering, he pauses, glancing through a doorway to a room full of children, who stand together, staring back. Perhaps the sorrow of the evening has finally hit the solider, or possibly he’s lost in the profound significance of the mission. Or perhaps he doesn’t know what to think. At that moment, neither do we.