Zero Dark Thirty is a meticulously structured film with a clearcut message: torture and the suspension of any belief in basic human rights led to the capture and death of Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Whether this is true or not does not really matter; the movie claims, in its opening seconds, that it is based on first-hand real life accounts. It is, basically, close enough to the truth: the U.S. tortures its enemies and the U.S. captured and killed bin Laden. The degree of connection between the two in the reality does not weigh too heavily on the film; however it is problematically, unscrupulously utterly integral to its plot.
Director Kathryn Bigelow chose a much-known and talked-about subject to draw viewers in, created an intense amount of buzz, and then delivered a perfect little action film about a CIA agent's tracking down of a terrorist through various players and with the help of fellow CIA agents. I almost feel embarrassed writing about it, considering how simple and direct it is, even in its obvious attempts at being mysterious. People may read much into the closing long take of a close up on the heroine after the successful raid. She cries, she gives an ambiguous, "I just realized something" look. Given the entire film - which involves her many times proudly pronouncing that she's going to kill bin Laden and even helping to inflict torture on an Al Qaeda agent - there is little question as to her feelings towards the morality of the events. She made possible the death of a man and everything that brought her to that point was "worth it"; her only loss or regret is not having anyone to relentlessly pursue for the moment.
The protagonist Maya is a pro-torture CIA agent who is good at her job and persistent when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy of the agency - a second enemy to the justice being served, with the first one being, of course, the target.
Giving itself away from the very first second, the film begins with sound recordings of phone calls from the Twin Towers as they were coming down. It marks this as the beginning, as the initiating crime, thus ignoring a history without which none of it makes sense to anyone who actually cares about the complexities of what has become known as foreign "terrorism" in the United States. Regardless, the film sets it up so that the torture that follows is justified by the horrific events of September 11th (as well as the subsequent acts of terrorism later depicted, mostly before a torture sequence). The justification is gloriously solidified by the success of the capture of the most sought-after "terrorist" that ends the film.
Zero Dark Thirty uses classic Hollywood action thriller motifs, structures, pacing, and tactics to tell a politically motivated story about the process of an international war on terrorism's victory - a process that does not casually include torture and inhumane treatment but is based upon it. The war on terror is enacted as a war on basic humanity. The heroine seems to be the least human of them all, having no personal life and facing the hugest catastrophe of her life by the story's end: the end of the story: the possibility of a private life: a place to go home at the end of the day. Does Ms. Bigelow paint this as a plot worth harping on? No. Just an ending point to add gravity to the fact that her own movie is coming to an end.
The matter of how Bigelow wonderfully builds suspense, creates a fictional and effective world of terror, and casts strong actors is another area of film reviewing. The movie works as high entertainment, despite it being too long (a ridiculous almost three hours). Jason Clarke is particularly good as the CIA agent who goes from being a torturer to taking a desk job, presumably a result of becoming too queasy to get his hands dirty. I suppose a major plot point to the film is Maya taking over, now all-in, and very willing to cross moral lines in order to get what she wants. In accepting her Golden Globe for best actress in a drama, Jessica Chastain, winning for her role as Maya, claimed that Bigelow had done more for female actresses and characters than she could know. It is a sad industry when creating a woman like that is perceived as giving women in general more necessary power and presence in cinema. The last thing one needs in this world is another blindly driven, heartless, cold, and humanless person - no matter man or woman.