In 20 years time, when we look back at the ‘War on Terror’, I wonder if we’ll half-remember it through the filter of two war movies by director Kathryn Bigelow and reporter-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal? Their 2009 Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker followed a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Now they’ve made this sidekick – a gritty, unbelievably tense procedural about the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. These are action films for people who think action movies are dumb: they put us thrillingly on the inside of history (at least it feels that way) and grip in their journalistic detail.
Zero Dark Thirty makes Homeland look as dangerous as Downton Abbey. It begins, heartbreakingly, on 9/11. The screen is black and we hear the voice of a woman inside one of the towers – on the phone to the emergency services. She knows she’s going to die. The operator is trained to deal with worst-case scenarios, but what can she say? Two planes have flown into New York’s iconic skyscrapers. All the rules have been broken.
Then… bang. The action shifts to Pakistan where a fresh-faced CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is having a lesson in interrogation. She watches a colleague negotiate with an al-Qaida operative: give me an email address and I’ll give you food. Next, torture: dog collars, waterboarding, sleep deprivation and one line, repeated over and over, "When you lie to me, I hurt you."
Maya is horrified. You assume she’s going to be the voice of America’s conscience (after all, Chastain is the actress who played the dreamy earth-mother in The Tree of Life). But, no, six months later, she is using the same lines, making the same trades. There’s chemistry between Maya and her CIA boss, but this isn’t a movie where the girl gets the guy; this is the movie where she gets the ‘Big Guy’ – a nickname for Bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty is lean, mean storytelling: no backstories, no-frills – just action and an effortless forward momentum. Maya is obsessed with tracking down one of her leads: a man said to be Bin Laden’s courier. Some might think Bigelow is apologising for torture with this film. She’s not. She’s interested in why Maya and her CIA colleagues behave as they do – with the detachment of a reporter. We see the desperate context they work in – the tick, tick, tick wait for more bombs to go off around the world. Years pass. We watch a pile-up of dead-ends and mistakes.
Boal spent the best part of a decade talking to counterterrorism operatives, and it shows in his faultless dialogue. At CIA headquarters, they question Maya’s credibility. "What do you think of her?", asks the CIA director (James Gandolfini). "She’s smart," answers an advisor. "We’re all smart," he deadpans. It’s 2010, and some analysts doubt Bin Laden is still the game, or perhaps he’s dead. Bigelow is the smartest guy in the room when it comes to portraying tribes: from the CIA wonks to the big, suicidally brave knucklehead Navy Seals sent in to take out Bin Laden, all barrel chests on the outside, mushy-sweet on the inside.
The endgame – a raid on a suburban house in Pakistan – is a white-knuckle watch. And when a Seal finally puts a bullet into a thin, grey-bearded man, you don’t doubt for a second this is what it was like: dogs barking, freaked-out locals raising a mob outside. This is an instant classic.