The recent release of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the U.S. military’s decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, has left a firestorm of criticism in its wake: it’s been called inaccurate, fascistic, racist; liberals have accused it of re-invoking the bloodlust and jingoism of the Bush administration, while conservatives were dismissing it as left-wing propaganda designed to help re-elect Obama before it had even been seen. I can’t speak to the film’s accuracy, but its politics strike me as not only non-partisan but downright obscure. In this, Zero Dark Thirty is a maddening but also somehow noble film, one that doesn’t resort to the regurgitation of any party’s lines on torture, military policy, or the Iraq and Afghan wars. It leaves you queasily uncertain about how to feel and even what to think about everything it has shown you. It’s the only really acceptable account of these events imaginable, because it doesn’t pander or sentimentalize for a moment.
The film is equally ambiguous in handling its main character, a CIA agent known only as Maya, dogged and tireless in her determination to find and kill her target. Does Maya embody the tenacity and single-mindedness of purpose on which the U.S. military prides itself? Does she represent a desire for vengeance that borders on fanaticism? Is she a variation on the character played by Jeremy Renner in Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, so committed to her objective that, for better or worse, its fulfillment has come at the cost of her ability to function as a person? Bigelow doesn’t tip her hand—though the film’s devastating final shot suggests that if Maya is the film’s heroine, she is at the very least a tragic one. It's at that moment that Zero Dark Thirty feels the most inscrutable, and the most profound: we realize that for all of its meticulous attention to procedural details, it has told us nothing, not even what we’re supposed to feel toward Maya. It’s the best kind of war movie—the war movie as Rorschach blot. Watching it, you become aware of how frequently and insidiously other movies (and not just war movies) coach our emotions as audience members, and how astounding it is to see a film, let alone one about such a highly charged subject, rendered so inscrutably.
The film is further complicated by its having been brought to life by two women working in a decidedly masculine genre. Bigelow, who has made a name for herself as a director of action, horror, and war movies, holds the distinction of being the only woman ever to win a Best Director Oscar, and she may be on her way to setting another record as the first woman to win two. As Maya, Jessica Chastain continues to make good on the promise she showed last year in films like Take Shelter, The Help and The Tree of Life. She’s in nearly every scene of Zero Dark Thirty, and she’s electrifying; it’s unsettling to see her delicate features shape into a steely gaze, her slight, fine-boned frame become a conduit of pulsing energy. Together, she and Bigelow have pulled off a feat almost as formidable as Maya’s: they have turned a genre inside out.