Zero Dark Thirty is a great movie, one that shows the men and women responsible for our national security as dedicated, determined, competent, intelligent and brave. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal also portray the hunt for Osama bin Laden as a systematic quest for justice rather than an overheated quest for revenge.
It's not the movie Washington expected, but it's not the movie that Hollywood expected, either.
Anyone who wants their art to conform to a set of political beliefs (or even just hew closely to a particular version of the facts) will immediately have a lot of issues with Zero Dark Thirty. It's neither the pro-Obama hagiography that pre-release critics claimed it would be, nor is it the pro-torture apology that some have claimed since its first screenings in late November.
Bigelow's not much interested in making a TV-style docudrama (check out that Seal Team Six movie on Netflix for some version of that). She found a story she wanted to tell, inspired by a real-life CIA analyst who struggled to follow slim leads over a long period of time in the face of conventional logic and bureaucratic indifference. The fact that she's hunting bin Laden gives the story more weight but that still leaves us with a director who's using one of the most significant historical incidents in American history as a way to explore themes that interest her.
That's not a swipe at Bigelow: Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner did much the same thing with Lincoln, taking a real historical incident and using its characters to tell a story about broader issues with politicians and consensus. Daniel Day-Lewis' brilliant portrayal of a character called Abraham Lincoln surely has as little to do with the real man as Jessica Chastain's almost-as-brilliant portrayal of Maya has to do with the real-life CIA analyst who inspired her.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a credits on a black screen and uses actual distress calls from 9/11 as the soundtrack. The effect is overwhelming and carries over to the opening scene where Jason Clarke's CIA agent Dan (no last names for most characters in this movie) is engaged in an enhanced interrogation of a terror suspect. There's neither action-picture testosterone nor message-picture disgust in the waterboarding scenes; it's a matter-of-fact portrayal of a difficult and trying practice that, in ZDT's version of the story, happens to yield a piece of valuable information that leads to bin Laden. Whether torture actually helped us get bin Laden is probably a national issue worth discussing and also a discussion of very little interest to the filmmakers.
That's the crux of the issue with Zero Dark Thirty. Do you see a brilliant movie that uses actual events in service of its own cinematic reality, much like The Godfather created a version of the Mafia that didn't have much to do with the reality of Italian-American crime families? Or do you decide that ZDT's powerful telling of the story will most likely come to define how future generations understand actual historical events and get frustrated or angry that someone who's not so concerned with the specific facts gets to be the one who tells the tale?
Zero Dark Thirty is a far better movie that Bigelow's Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. Lots of people involved in the bomb disposal business didn't like that movie's attention to detail, either, and the whole enterprise was meandering and episodic. ZDT tells a great story and builds relentlessly to the powerful retelling of the raid on Abbottabad (a version of the story that matches up well with the one in No Easy Day).
The performances are uniformly excellent. Kyle Chandler's performance as Joseph Bradley and Mark Strong's portrayal of George (no last name again) offer sympathetic performances as as CIA management balancing political pressures from above with the intel they're getting from their agents. Jennifer Ehle gives a heartbreaking performance as an agent who reminds the audience that Maya's investigation wasn't the only one going on over the last ten years. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt lead a group of SEAL Team Six actors who play the scenes with a natural ease that skips the movie-style, puffed-up importance that these guys don't exhibit in real life.
If you believe that possible national security concerns should preclude any movies about classified military actions, you're going to want a full investigation of every person who might have given the filmmakers the kind of detailed input the obviously received when making this movie. If you believe we live in a culture where most Americans have very little knowledge about the kind of work the military and intelligence communities are doing to keep us safe, Zero Dark Thirty is a brilliant motion picture that makes a compelling case for the dedication and bravery of our nation's watchmen.