Zero Dark Thirty.
If Maya's intensity, youth and vulnerability, brass, brains, and kinetic sex appeal seem an unlikely mix, it's because, as the filmmakers admit, she's a "composite" anchoring a thousand events played out over nearly eight years. And as a fiery amalgam, the unsmiling Maya ("recruited ... right out of high school") has freedom to do it all: we meet her at a CIA "black site", witnessing, with initial discomfort only, the torture of an al-Qaeda prisoner (Reda Kateb); soon she's in Islamabad under violent terrorist attack, then at a desk zeroing in on bin Laden's top courier (soon tracked to Abbottabad by an American-Kuwaiti surveillance team); next, Maya's behind Tom Clancy shades inspiring commandos at super-secret Area 51, and finally she's at Bagram Airfield to verify that the body the SEALs bring in is really bin Laden's. As writer-producer Boal has noted: "It's not a documentary. It's a movie."
Indeed. At Langley, Maya breaks sharply into top-level back-and-forth to specify the enigmatic Abbottabad compound's stone's-throw distance from the Pakistani Military Academy; when the male-chauvinist CIA Director (James Gandolfini) asks drily, "Who are you?" Maya, the only woman in the room, has the perfect comeback: "I'm the motherfucker who found the place!" (Female stars of war movies are obliged, at least once, to out-cuss any man on screen; the standard is Demi Moore's Lieutenant O'Neill, in 1997's G.I. Jane, snarling at her hectoring, derisive SEAL instructor, "Suck my dick!") Zero Dark Thirty is as much about feminist role modeling as it is about the CIA.
After seven CIA operatives are killed in a suicide double-cross at Camp Chapman, Afghanistan-including (in a move as old as Homer) her only near-friend (Jennifer Ehle)--it's not Vin Diesel but Maya who pledges, "I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I'm going to kill bin Laden." CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes), in the series Homeland, needs quirky neuroses to keep her gunning for terrorists; but Maya has just one crystal-clear motive: she's an American citizen who wants revenge on the mastermind of Nine-Eleven. And Maya--dangerous only when provoked--is a very tough customer.
The final segment recreates Operation Neptune Spear as the SEALs, in stealthy Air Force choppers, glide to their target in the dead of night ("zero-dark-thirty"). One chopper loses lift and crashes by the compound wall. The SEALs pile out nearly unfazed, even as the inmates of the house may be strapping on suicide vests or arming remote-controlled IEDs. The entire sequence shimmers through the green haze of night-vision goggles with as much combat immediacy as anything on screen since Saving Private Ryan (1998). When an entrance can't be breached, the SEALs know where there's another. An al-Qaeda firing a rifle is shot and killed. A man rushing toward the SEALs down the stairwell is shot and killed, as is a woman flying around the corner behind him. At the top of the stairs a SEAL whisper-calls bin Laden's name and Osama, a shadow in a doorway, bolts back, and is shot and killed. A woman rushing bin Laden's killer is shot in the foot. She and another woman are searched for explosives. Unlike terrorists, the SEALs try to calm the survivors--kids and women. They grab records and vamoose, intimidating by voice and armed gestures alone a gathering Pakistani crowd.
The plot of Zero Dark Thirty, in the police procedural mode of TV's 24, is that a name uttered by one tortured detainee and confirmed by another anxious to avoid torture eventually leads Maya, years later, to the hideout of bin Laden. Thus, some say, the movie tacitly endorses CIA torture, and Boal and Bigelow are "pre-fascist" advocates whose film is "immoral," "despicable," and "reprehensible"--making Zero Dark Thirty the first American war film to be widely denounced as "immoral" since The Deer Hunter (1978). (Elsewhere in the media the filmmakers were castigated as "liberals" spilling security secrets while trying to get the anti-torture Barack Obama re-elected: remarkably, the film's release date was accordingly postponed to December, well after Election Day; a much-ballyhooed House investigation of just what the Administration told Boal and Bigelow was quietly and inconclusively dropped.)
Whether torture could be justified is an issue the film doesn't address. (And whether so many vicious methods were ever unloaded on any one suspect is another question, if beside the point.) Nor does the film judge Maya's doctorate-holding mentor, the inquisitor Dan (Jason Clarke), who brutally starves, strips, humiliates, "hurts," strings up, force-feeds, and waterboards his prisoner while remaining affable in between and after. ("God help us" says Robert Ryan to an infinitely less sadistic Aldo Ray in 1957's Men in War, "if we need men like you to win our wars"; Maya's response is merely to observe that simple bagmen can't know what Dan's trying to force out of them.) You're left to form your own opinion, which may be complicated by the scenes of al-Qaeda bombings and machine-gun attacks and Bigelow's prefatory, black-screen audio of wrenching phone calls from the burning Twin Towers. Bigelow and Boal let all chips fall where they may, while those convinced of the mesmerizing influence of film are outraged at what, at best, they see as an abdication of moral responsibility in one direction or the other. While FBI and military interrogators customarily reject as unreliable information coughed up to fend off agony, others (mostly in the CIA) stand by the now banned "harsh interrogations." Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain (not usually on the same side) wrote to chide SONY Pictures for distributing so misleading a work.
The moralists' ancient belief in the pernicious influence of art is unresolvable here, but media charges that CIA torture, specifically against Arabs, is being used to "entertain" and make money, may have cost this morally ambiguous docudrama an Academy Award. The critics angrily indict the filmmakers for being less tendentious than themselves.
The ending of Zero Dark Thirty lacks the insidious "triumphalism" that some poststructuralists find routinely in war films. Maya identifies bin Laden's corpse, and it's morning in Afghanistan. She boards a C-130 that improbably carries her alone. Most improbably, the pilot asks, "Where do you want to go?" In the great emptiness of the cargo bay, Maya, her mission accomplished, expressively says nothing.