Do these scenes, which have prompted fierce debate by movie critics and people in the political field, constitute an endorsement of either the morality or efficacy of torture? I'd argue no. The efficacy is dubious, since Omar is shown giving up information not under torture but when that duress is removed and he's treated like a human being. As for the morality, Bigelow and Boal don't feel the need to spell things out for viewers, instead letting them judge for themselves.
Attending Omar's interrogation is a new CIA field agent, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), who becomes the through-line for the entire movie. Maya is quiet, but tough, listening more than she talks and constantly analyzing all the available data and working to drum up more. When Omar finally does give up a name, Abu Ahmed, Maya's the one who figures out that it's the name of a courier who carries messages for Bin Laden. Find Abu Ahmed, Maya deduces, and they'll find Bin Laden.
But it's never so simple in the CIA, and one of the beauties of Bigelow and Boal's work is how they translate the complex stream of data into a cogent narrative. They also delve into the details of CIA internal politics, as Maya must buck her Pakistan station chief (Kyle Chandler) and later butt heads with her boss (Mark Strong) back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Bigelow and Boal essentially divide the story into three main chapters: the frenzied field work in the wake of 9/11; the analytical puzzle being pieced together at Langley; and finally the mission itself, on May 1, 2011, when the Navy SEALs go into Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which is exciting, even though we all know how it ends.
Each chapter yields fascinating details, as well as smart supporting performances by a cast that includes Jennifer Ehle as an overeager field agent, James Gandolfini as the cagey CIA director and Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as SEALs who carry out the final mission.
Through it all, Chastain's performance becomes the compass by which the movie charts its course. Chastain's Maya is smart but not showy (except for one quotable moment with Gandolfini's character), and above all persistent in her pursuit of the information and her determination to see that information acted upon. She is an engaging symbol of the CIA's process and America's resilience.
'Zero Dark Thirty'
An exciting, thorough examination of how the CIA found and orchestrated the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Jan. 11.
Rating • R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
Running time • 157 minutes.