Zero Dark Thirty: The Girl Who Got bin Laden

In this powerhouse, true-life thriller, the team behind The Hurt Locker details the decadelong hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden

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Jonathan Olley / Columbia Pictures

In a “black site” at an undisclosed location, a CIA officer is interrogating a man suspected of having information on the courier of Osama bin Laden. The suspect, Ammar (Reda Kateb), believes he can withstand the waterboarding, the dog collar, the sleep and food deprivation, the heavy metal music  that hammers his warehouse cell 24 hours a day; he boldly asserts that “jihad will go on for a hundred years.” But as his captor, Dan (Jason Clarke), patiently explains, “In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.” Ammar turns to Dan’s silent partner, Maya (Jessica Chastain), and cries, “Your friend is an animal. Please help me.” The ordeal continues. That’s diplomacy, by any means necessary.

The 9/11 attacks instantly created a new world disorder, changing the face of the enemy from cranky tyrants to a stateless ascetic with the dream of crippling infidel America. Al-Qaeda’s coup also rendered the old book of counterintelligence ethics obsolete. Bribes and blackmail were still permitted, but no gentlemen or ladies needed enlist in the war on terror. The stakes were too high, as Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director and writer of The Hurt Locker, document in their powerhouse thriller Zero Dark Thirty. “I want targets!” shouts George (Mark Strong), a high-level CIA official, to his agents in the field. “Do your f—in’ job. Bring me people to kill.” At this time, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) is the CIA director, and Maya has been working for years to locate Mr. Big — to bring in the head of Osama bin Laden.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Hurt Locker)

Surrounded by tattooed enforcers like Dan and upper-management toughies like George, Maya at first seems as pale and petite as a naked mole rat. When Dan is transferred back home and Maya assumes control of the interrogations, her boss warns her, “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” But Maya has developed copper callouses and steely reserve, especially after some of her closest colleagues were blown to bits in the 2009 suicide bombing at the Camp Chapman base in Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA agents. Maya believes she was spared so she could finish the job. “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op,” she says of the Camp Chapman attack. “And then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”

The making of Zero Dark Thirty, which opens on Dec. 19 in a few theaters before expanding in January, was an operation nearly as complex and secretive as the one that took down bin Laden. Some industry analysts, inferring that the movie was all about the May 1, 2011, SEAL Team 6 raid that killed the al-Qaeda leader, wondered why a woman had the leading role. (The raid consumes just the final fifth of the movie.) The clandestine nature of the enterprise also stoked sepulchral suspicions, both on the right and the center-left, that ZDT would be a mash note to Barack Obama, who gave the go-ahead for the raid, while George W. Bush proclaimed in 2004 that “I really just don’t spend that much time on [bin Laden]” and Mitt Romney in 2007 said it was “not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”

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Before the movie had begun shooting, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asserted that “the White House has outsourced the job of manning up the President’s image to Hollywood.” Peter King, the House Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, promised an investigation of any aid the Obama Administration might have afforded Boal; and the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, a political action group stocked with Tea Party Express members and ex-Bush officials involved in the Iraq war, produced a YouTube video charging the film with “dishonorable disclosures” — as if the Defense Department didn’t pour millions into supplying hardware and expertise to Hollywood movies (Transformers, Act of Valor and dozens of others) and government insiders didn’t routinely spill secrets to journalists like Bob Woodward. And Dowd.

For the record, Bigelow received no help from the U.S. government — no lending of aircraft or weaponry — in the depiction of the Abbottabad, Pakistan, raid or of any other military activity. And we would hope that Boal, like any investigative reporter, received knowledgeable help in getting his facts straight. Further, this is in no way a political film; it carries neither a torch for Obama (who is seen only for seconds, promising in a 2008 news clip to end waterboarding) nor the agitated imprint of an Oliver Stone film. Essentially, it’s a police procedural on a grand scale.

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First and last, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, and a damned fine one. Like Argo — which, with all due respect to director Ben Affleck and the film’s many admirers, ZDT blows out of the water — it dramatizes a true-life international adventure with CIA agents as the heroes. (And it takes fewer fictional liberties with the source material than Affleck did.) In the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Boal tracked down the particulars of a sensational exploit and, skipping the “nonfiction novel” stage, created an original screenplay that provides a streamlined timeline of the hunt for bin Laden. The word docudrama doesn’t hint at Boal’s achievement. This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Argo)

It’s a subject perfect for Bigelow. She has wrangled complex stories about cops (Blue Steel), undercover FBI agents (Point Break) and nuclear-submarine commanders (K19: The Widowmaker) and in the process proved herself to be one of cinema’s most inventive visual strategists and field commanders — and, in a nice way, Hollywood’s ballsiest director. Perched between the serene classicism of old Hollywood and the jittery crazy-cam of the Bourne era, Bigelow’s style is terse and assured. There’s no question which side she’s on, but she allows virtually all the characters, American and Middle Eastern, their moments of reason or sympathy. In this case she is neither prosecutor nor judge — simply the sharpest, most attentive member of the jury.

In The Hurt Locker, which won Oscars for Best Director and Original Screenplay, Bigelow and Boal viewed the war on terror in a microcosm, through the eyes of a trio of bomb defusers in Iraq. ZDT is a macrocosm. Instead of a Baghdad street where an IED could explode underfoot, Maya and her colleagues tread a minefield that stretches from Kabul to Times Square. Though it focuses on the determination and resilience of Maya (who is based on a real CIA tracker), the film is a giant fresco, an imposing series of surgical strikes set in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Poland and the U.S. For a throbbing 2 hours and 40 minutes, ZDT moves through enemy territory with the speed, weight, brains and grace of a Pro Bowl NFL linebacker; it’s the Lawrence Taylor of war-ops movies.

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With the dense dialogue spread across more than 100 speaking roles, the supporting actors could be mere information carriers, but many make excellent use of their limited screen time: Clarke as the hard-case interrogator with a Ph.D., Kateb as his victim-informer, Kyle Chandler as Maya’s suave, cautious station boss, Jennifer Ehle as a warm, seen-it-all field agent and Edgar Ramirez as an operative who tracks bin Laden on an edgy ride through Islamabad. Chastain takes a while to grow into Maya’s skin, but her tentativeness in the early scenes may be an accurate depiction of a young woman just out of college, enduring the growing pains of a difficult matriculation in a killer job.

As a bright young woman driven to bring down an al-Qaeda terrorist, Maya shares aspects of Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison in the Showtime series Homeland, but she lacks Carrie’s defining neuroses — and much other personal biography. What are Maya’s political beliefs? Who are her family and friends back home? Does she have a sex life? Doesn’t matter: she is her job. In a way, Maya is the CIA equivalent of Bigelow, a strong woman who has mastered a man’s game.

(MORE: Kathryn Bigelow Profile: The Front Runner)

At the end, the woman who finds bin Laden also finds an end to her sacred obsession. And eight years to the day after Bush prematurely announced it, a U.S. official has earned the right to proclaim, “Mission accomplished.” So too, with this splendid sortie into cinematic reportage, can Kathryn Bigelow.

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