- - Thursday, January 10, 2013

There are many reasons to celebrate “Zero Dark Thirty”: its complex and often tricky moral architecture, its rejection of easy partisan politics, its stubborn insistence on the importance of minor bureaucratic details, its subtle subversion of action movie tropes. But the best reason is that it is simply a great movie — flawless as a thriller, a political drama, a manhunt procedural and an action flick. It’s an unusual thing from Hollywood: a movie of grand ambitions and equally grand success.

Part of what makes it so arresting is that it does not obviously advertise its ambitions. Aside from its politically charged topic, director Kathryn Bigelow’s chronicle of the decadelong CIA manhunt that led to a raid that killed Osama bin Laden keeps its head down. Like its fanatically focused, no-pretensions protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain), it stays strictly on the target: How, through years of interrogation and toil, we got the man behind 9/11.

Emphasis on the “we.” Miss Chastain is both the protagonist — a stand-in for a real CIA agent instrumental in catching bin Laden — and an audience surrogate. The movie begins when Maya shows up at a CIA black site and tags along for an excruciating, extended bout of brutal interrogation. She’s plainly repulsed by what she sees, but when interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) asks her to hand him a pitcher of water, she does. Despite her discomfort, she becomes a participant, and the viewer is with her.

Much has been made of the movie’s treatment of these interrogation sequences. But these scenes neither condone nor condemn the way captive suspected terrorists were treated.

Instead, Ms. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who conducted hours of original research for the film, offer a fictionalized report of the relevant events: This is what we did. And these were the results. Some of it was indeed quite ugly, and Ms. Bigelow makes the interrogation scenes suitably painful to watch. But neither does she shy from allowing the viewer a grim sense of both justice and satisfaction when the final raid is launched.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is an account, not a judgment. A story, not an argument. We killed Osama bin Laden, the man ultimately responsible for the murder of thousands of Americans. And this — a billion dollars, a decade of mostly fruitless toil, an interrogation program — the movie reports, was the cost of doing so. Implicit in this ledger-like accounting is a question: Was it worth it? To its credit, the movie does not attempt to offer an answer.

Like Maya, Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal arrive at the big picture through an obsessive focus on the microscopic details: tiny reactions and turns of phrase, small bits of information that prove to be crucial. Chronicling what is likely the largest and most complicated manhunt in history is a large enough goal, but part of what’s striking is the humility of Ms. Bigelow’s directorial approach. She can be a remarkable stylist, especially when it comes to escalating action-scene tension. (Indeed, Ms. Bigelow often seems to have a better grasp of macho antics than her male counterparts.) But her choices always direct attention toward the story, not the director.

But the director is where the attention — and the credit — belongs. “Zero Dark Thirty” is fully a product of Ms. Bigelow’s unique perspective, and with it, she has given us a rare thing — a gripping, haunting, riveting masterpiece that expertly straddles the line between art-house intellectualism and mass-audience thrills. What may be overlooked is that she’s also given us something even more rare: a serious action movie about national security made by a woman. And as we celebrate the movie, we should celebrate the visionary director who gave it to us.

★★★★

TITLE: “Zero Dark Thirty”

CREDITS: Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, screenplay by Mark Boal

RATING: R for violence, language

RUNNING TIME: 157 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS