For her part, Bigelow — who won best picture and best director Oscars two years ago for “The Hurt Locker,” about a bomb technician in Iraq — “Zero Dark Thirty” provided her an opportunity to engage in the kind of visceral, immersive, action-driven filmmaking she’s spent a career refining, often within the context of mostly male subcultures. The facts that Boal amassed regarding the bin Laden mission, she said, created “longitudinal and latitudinal guidelines” that she was “thrilled” to work with.
“You’re working within these parameters that are kind of freeing and exciting,” she said, “because you're trying to bring something to life to the best of your ability and make it live and breathe and feel credible.”
Much like “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” puts viewers right into the action, in this case a dizzying needle-in-a-haystack search for the courier who led the CIA to bin Laden, and later the SEAL raid, which is reenacted in virtually real time. But rather than engaging in we-got-him triumphalism, Bigelow allows for ambiguity, with conflicting emotions playing out on the faces of Chastain and co-star Jason Clarke, who plays an agency interrogator.
The torture scenes, while ugly and graphic, aren’t presented in neat, ends-justify-means terms. It’s the day-to-day tradecraft that’s shown to be more important in the intelligence hunt, as CIA operatives use deception, misdirection and resources to pursue and woo their leads. (Perhaps the most crucial piece of information leading Chastain’s character to bin Laden is a name that a colleague finds buried in old files; a crucial telephone number is obtained by buying a Lamborghini for a source.) If “Zero Dark Thirty” justifies anything, it’s not torture but data mining, which might be sexy enough for “Moneyball” but not for “Hardball.”
If “Zero Dark Thirty” makes an editorial statement, Boal and Bigelow say, it’s in an operative’s line about “the big breaks and the little people who make them happen.” In many ways, they’re paying tribute to the kind of career officials and government bureaucrats that are so often ridiculed and scorned outside Washington. Like “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” celebrates process, professionalism and continuity of government that transcends partisan bickering and policy changes.