There is an exchange in Zero Dark Thirty between the CIA Director and an agent named Maya, the protagonist of this film. She mentions that she got recruited to the CIA right out of high school and he asks her what she’s done so far. It turns out that pretty much the only thing she has done in the CIA is to hunt down the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
If Maya’s career in the CIA has boiled down to one thing, Jessica Chastain boils down her performance of Maya down to one note: dogged determination. Taken as a whole, Jessica Chastain’s short career so far has provided ample proof of her versatility. This film, however, is not about her range but her accuracy. I have no doubt that Chastain will win an Oscar in the fullness of time, but this film will most likely not put her on the podium.
While the broad historical contours of this story are well-known, Kathryn Bigelow casts this specific plot in a familiar Hollywood mould: The Woman With A Theory No One Believes. Maya pursues the theory that the best way to get to Osama is to find his trusted courier, a will-o-the-wisp named Abu Ahmed. Nearly everyone else is shown to focus on the more immediate problems plaguing the Western intelligence organisations at the time: find and avert further terrorist attacks. Screenwriting classes teach us that plots need conflict — this is the central one in this film.
So she pleads, cajoles, hectors and persuades her colleagues and superiors to help her on this mission of hers that nobody else seems to fully believe in. That she is right is what makes it work, but the interesting part is that her colleagues have excellent reasons to be sceptical of her conclusions for the most part. A lesser film would have portrayed her detractors as petty-minded bureaucrats with equal parts malice and ignorance, but Bigelow adopts a more even-handed approach here.
There is, however, a deeper conflict brewing, one that Maya is not even aware of. What happens once she achieves her objective? Given the methods used to extract information from captured terrorists and their contacts, methods that Maya is very much aware of and tacitly participates in, what bill will her soul present to her when all is said and done? Barring a few moments, Maya’s intensity never flags; you never get the sense that she even wants to think about this. For now, there is just the chase.