The slight but crucial difference in Kathryn Bigelow's directorial approach to the sensitive issues of the war on terror between 2010's The Hurt Locker and her latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, is crystallized by the choices of music to accompany the final shots and end credits of each film. In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow unleashed sludge metal band Ministry's "Fear (Is Big Business)" over her final shot of an adrenaline-fueled Jeremy Renner trudging through the desolate streets of Iraq. The image, intentionally or not, is like an advertisement for masculinity and war (the song's title explicitly suggests the noxious collaboration of fear-mongering and capitalism), and the music beneath it came across like an attempt to reflect how badass it is to tear the flesh of a faceless enemy. Fast forward two turbulent years past the actual culmination of a decade-long manhunt of Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama Bin Laden, the continued involvement – deadly and arguably pointless – of the US military in the Middle East, and the re-election of Barack Obama, and Bigelow now sees it fit to conclude another topical pressure-cooker of a film with something a bit more ambiguous and sophisticated: the somber strains of Alexandre Desplat's score, a piece that suggests traversing through uncertain terrain with its minor-key atmosphere and churning rhythms. The image, too, a close-up of Jessica Chastain's weathered face as it fails to tie up the decade-long emotional journey of her character throughout this high-stakes-heavy film, is enigmatic and nondescript rather than pushy and on-the-nose. It opens rather than closes its meaning.
The same could be said of Zero Dark Thirty as a whole. As a film covering many of the most significant political events of our time from the perspective of the United States, it's inevitable that it can only be so ambiguous, but Bigelow's commitment to never patting her audience on the back in spite of the many "triumphs," minor and major, in the film's plot, is worth commending. In fact, in a scene halfway through the film in which Chastain, playing a feisty CIA operative named Maya, lectures a group of soldiers about to raid Bin Laden's stowaway on the many possible "narratives" (her word) revolving around the terrorist leader's activity, it's almost as if Bigelow is directly acknowledging that our entire understanding of the Middle East is just one of multiple potential narratives. That what we think we know about how the pursuit of Bin Laden was treated may be false or only partially true. That what we think we understand about American soldiers and about Iraqi "enemies" might be unfounded. These are stirring possibilites with a myriad of unsettling implications, not the kind of self-congratulatory fodder that the film's sensationalist marketing tagline – "The Greatest Manhunt in History" – implies.
Zero Dark Thirty does, however, prove to be a great manhunt. Bigelow, taming her impulse towards tacky slow-motion money shots, is the filmmaker for the job; shooting largely in underlit interrogation zones, cramped office spaces, and clammy CIA bases in Pakistan, she makes even the most uneventful conversations vibrate with intensity and purpose, never losing sight of the film's major unresolved conflict even as agents dilly-dally for months without committing to decisive moves. And for a film that is so nerve-wracking from start to finish, it's remarkable that it manages to be so defined by inaction, by the inefficiency and lack of progress marking the search for Osama Bin Laden and the calming of constant national threat. During one of the film's most gripping passages (note: it's hard to commit to such a statement given the film's fluidity), Maya pressures her crumbling superior (Kyle Chandler) into following her lead and hurrying up on the active pursuit of Bin Laden at the expense of smaller, more insignificant CIA actions by writing a daily tally in red marker on his office window marking the days past since she proposed her belief in the exact location of the head terrorist. It's a sequence that is tense not for any visceral action but for the feeling that the more time passes the more innocent people are at risk, an anxiety that surely speaks to the national discomfort regarding the continued survival, 10 years after 9/11, of Al-Qaeda's most dangerous movers and shakers.
Bigelow resurrects that feeling, perhaps for many still unresolved, by opening the film on a black screen set to the panicked overlapping sounds of distress calls as the Twin Towers were being attacked. The absence of imagery is in many ways a brilliantly universal maneuver allowing for the audience to connect their own recollections of the tragedy to the soundtrack and underscoring how close the memory of the attack still feels. The voices are so intimate, so horrifyingly present, that the visceral impact of the tragedy looms heavily over the entire film, inspiring aggravation when the CIA tactics seems to be reaching dead ends and an unsettling reversal of sympathy when the cruel efforts of the interrogators are being acted out on seemingly innocent peripheral players. A stray snippet of a Barack Obama speech on television in which the president addresses the nation's refusal to stoop to torture strategies to preserve the moral fiber of the country starts to sound detached and hypocritical when placed aside the numerous scenes of brutality in which there remains a discomforting sensation that the recipient of the torture truly does not have revealing information to give. In such instances, Bigelow is making the audience complicit in the morally problematic processes of asking questions and demanding answers on such a vast international scale.
The aforementioned Obama snippet is the only time Zero Dark Thirty bothers to explicitly show the leader ostensibly calling the shots and signing off on the procedures that constitute the film's plot. Otherwise, Bigelow's interested in the workmanlike perseverance powering the engine of Obama's (and for the first portion of the film, Bush's) approaches, as well as the layers of bureaucracy that must be traversed to act upon even the simplest of propositions. Higher and higher authorities come and go throughout the film – Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Duplass, Mark Strong, Jeff Mash, and finally CIA Director James Gandolfini all make appearances as figures to whom Maya must explain her plans of attack and convince them of their legitimacy – and their resilience to Maya's ambition seems bottomless. This political battle is one in which only absolute certainty backed up by proof is acceptable, and so much of what Maya does is based on a mix of (often dead-on) intuition and incomplete (but very convincing) information. One of the intriguing questions the film leaves on the table is whether or not a government and CIA more open to Maya's impulses would have stopped the bleeding considerably sooner.
Zero Dark Thirty is photographed for the most part in a succession of medium shots fixed on faces, the camera like an impassioned observer as it carefully and never frenetically scans the events in front of it. Like The Hurt Locker, the film showcases Bigelow as a master of non-judgmentally depicting high-stakes processes, subjectively expressing the mindset of a character in a given occupation. But if The Hurt Locker's focus on a proverbial war addict gave rise to a highly questionable approach to the ethical dilemmas of the war, Zero Dark Thirty's concentration on a women with an eager commitment to peace and resolution, not to mention a sophisticated understanding of the pratfalls of American foreign affairs (at one point early on, she suggestively implicates the US government in many of the problems they're facing), sheds a more compassionate and complex light on the troubling battle against terrorism. There are less than a handful of action set pieces in the film – the most significant being the final, and far from flawless, raid on Bin Laden's dwellings – which allows the audience to suspend a critical eye on the otherwise behind-closed-doors CIA dealings. All of this makes Zero Dark Thirty a richer, more mature film than its predecessor, confronting more closely and unflinchingly than any post-9/11 American film to date the question of what exactly it means to be a part of this country during a time of such devastating crossroads.