Zero Dark Thirty is a grim poetic character study framed in the mechanics and jingoism of a 21st Century war-on-terror movie. The "war-on-terror movie" aspect is pretty much dead-on conventional and extremely well-done: lots of suits walking down CIA hallways, lots of bombs going off, lots of intrique and dust and green-lit night footage. We need the conventional aspects of the movie because what Kathryn Bigelow, the director, and Mark Boal, the writer, are truly after is the heroic romance of an outsider, a woman, through sheer force of will, changing the main structures of how to reach an outlandishly far-fetched bureaucratic goal. In this case: tracking down and assassinating Osama Bin Laden.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA agent so focused and so inspired that she can't move past what she is hellbent on accomplishing. In fact, that need to kill Bin Laden obsesses her to the point no one wants to listen to her within CIA confines, but still her persistence can't be ignored or erased because everyone around her is so spooked they need Maya's hunches and instincts to be real. A vigilant outsider who has somehow wound up in the ultimate insider's role, Maya is the Norma Rae of intel, and the movie's main concern. And while this aspect of Zero Dark Thirty may seem just as conventional as the "war-movie" pastiche, somehow Chastain's performance, and the way Bigelow captures that performance, allows the cliches of the "rogue agent" to transform into a meditation on loneliness and resilience. Chastain's face and body are rigid and vulnerable simultaneously, as if she is a statue slowly turning into a little girl, and her eyes are always bullet-pointed toward a single destination. You feel awed by her dedication and yet also unnerved by it.. This strangeness gives the movie a chill that allows it to be both propaganda for torture during wartime, and an expose of its evil dehumanization. In that middle territory, where war is represented as both glamorously cathartic and existentially futile, Maya becomes a bureaucratic icon of breaking down the status-quo by being its most staunch advocate.
In the end, Zero Dark Thirty plummets into the biggest of war-movie cliches: the night-time raid. Bigelow shoots the whole Bin Laden assassination with gusto and aplomb. You fall in love with her green-lit suspenseful chic. It's all fun and games merged with the feral politics of revenge. But what really matters at the end of this movie, I think, is its very last image. Chastain's Maya is escorted from Pakistan in a huge war-plane. She is the only one aboard. It's right after Bin Laden's assassination. She has just identified his body in the body bag. She climbs into the vast carrier, sits down, and has a good cry. Chastain is so wonderful in that moment. She's both emotional and sort of blithe: the tears are tears of exhaustion, not regret and not happiness either. You can tell as her image fades to black that she is also trying to find a place in her own mind to locate where to store her victory, while also understanding it really isn't a victory at all.