There is no genesis story for Maya, the relentless government operative on Bin Laden’s tail in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Any questions of her personal life are dodged, any inclinations about what happened in her past are tossed into a dirty Gitmo cell and black-bagged for eternity. What we’re witnessing in Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful “Zero Dark Thirty” is the figurative birth of Maya, whose personality and patriotism are reshaped and refined through 157 minutes of gritty, raw filmmaking.
This is the type of movie whose genius isn’t unearthed until the second or third viewing. It’s scattered with details and constantly toys with our sense of time and location. One minute its 2005 and we’re waterboarding “bad guys” in the Middle East, a minute later its 2009 and we’re having crystal clear phone calls in Langley, Virginia. Bin Laden is the target in “Zero Dark Thirty” but never the destination. This journey is navigated by compromise, human error, and misplaced moral objectives, where the why of anti-terrorism is always ignored, but the how is a steady topic of conversation.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a slightly-reserved CIA analyst who has an inherent knack for discovering patterns that others look over. She’s sharp-tongued but not in a friendly manner: Maya converses with others only to further goals, socializing for the sake of socializing for her is an obsolete concept. Throughout her time in Pakistan, Maya becomes increasingly entrenched and obsessed with Bin Laden to the point where it harms her objectivity and decision-making process.
“Zero Dark Thirty” cleverly utilizes each method of the attempt to capture Bin Laden as a unique increment of time. First is torture, a once common narrative but now political bygone of the Bush era. Then its geotracking and standard surveillance, reminiscent of the Obama/Snowden programs. We see snippets of drone strikes and suicide bombs throughout the movie, a world of violence met only with bureaucratic apathy by our characters.
Foreign scenes are shot with the majesty of “Lawrence of Arabia” and the mayhem of “Saving Private Ryan.” While our sense of time and space is displaced, Bigelow’s frame is always in full focus. Characters keep their dialogue short, but Bigelow speaks thousands of words through set design and camera movement.
Chastain, though, breathes passion and intensity into the movie. Just by taking a look at her career post “Zero Dark Thirty,” one can easily spot a trend of dominant female characters who share the same tattered CIA cloth of Maya. This is a career-defining role and Chastain rises to the occasion, an orange-haired phoenix constantly being reborn in the Pakistan desert sun.