The most prolific manhunt of the century.

CIA operatives in undisclosed locations, and a special operations raid in the dead of night. Stealth helicopters entering the airspace of a “sovereign” nation. A lone wolf against the colossal CIA and intelligence community’s machine of bureaucracy and black sites. Enhanced interrogations. You have to have a minimalist directorial team at the helm of this sort of material—it needs no hyperbole for what is already inherent. Luckily, that’s pretty much what you get.

Much has been said defending and rejecting the way torture is depicted in the film, and the moral ambiguities surrounding it. Academy Award winning director, (for 2008’s The Hurt Locker) Katherine Bigelow had this to say to about the way she chose to convey a decade of hunting for bin Laden:

I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. … Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

I saw the torture depiction as follows. The captive doesn’t give information in exchange for abuse. But he’ll give it up for some hummus and cigarettes. Whether torture should be condoned or condemned is not the question the film ask. On the contrary. It’s simply telling the viewer what went down. And maybe, that in the end, its not torture that elicits information or trust, but kindness, luck and patience.

Meanwhile, this film is nothing short of an odyssey, edited to perfection, distilled to the necessities. In just over two and a half hours, Bigelow and Boal chrystallize over ten years worth of terrorist attacks at home and abroad, intelligence mis-steps, overcomplications, the attention to unimportant petty criminals vs. serious jihadists, wasted time looking for cells in America vs. in plain sight abroad. While President Bush and his cabinet moved away from an emphasis on where bin Laden was hiding, and toward the unfounded theory that no one was really paying attention to him is telling. The notion that he had become marginalized and ill-regarded in the Middle East, a man on the run, was brilliantly explored in a scene between Jessica Chastain’s Maya and Kyle Chandler’s Joe Bradley. He tells her no one cares about bin Laden anymore. He’s old news. There have been attacks in London, Madrid, Islamabad, Saudi Arabia, and most recently in Khost, Afghanistan when seven CIA agents and contractors were killed by a double agent suicide bomber. Her response is that bin Laden is the mastermind, the mentor, and the inspiration behind all of it. This was the narrative few people accepted or responded to in the years after 9/11. The idea that he had been de-funded and de-throned by America’s mighty machine seemed more appealing and marketable.

In the end, when Maya is right, and christens herself as “the mother fucker who found this place” ie. bin Laden’s compound via his courier, she stands alone. The men in the boardroom don’t support her “100% its him” theory. A detailed and true to life portrayal of the raid comes next, under the green glow of night vision goggles worn by the SEAL team sent into the compound. The world knows what’s next. What doesn’t get shown in the film, to its discredit, is that Maya’s character is validated once more, by the intelligence gathered at the compound proving that bin Laden was indeed behind nearly every major terrorist attack in the years since 9/11, in addition to assassination plots against President Obama and General David Petraeus, and anniversary attacks on rail stations and transportation hubs.

Robbie Collins from the Telegraph in the UK writes,

Where, then, does Zero Dark Thirty leave us? In the same place it leaves Maya: with our thirst for justice quenched, but our sense of rightness shaken. “Where do you want to go?” a pilot asks her, and she starts shedding tear after tear. This, finally, is what victory looks like, and its likeness to defeat is terrifying.

Her life’s greatest work behind her, the satisfaction of a positive ID on the world’s most wanted terrorist. In one moment, the magnitude of the last ten years is assaulting as she sits alone in the body of a large cargo plane. She can go wherever she wants. But where do you go from here?