Over black, we hear the real-life sounds—the fire-truck honks and desperate phone calls—that signal New York City’s worst day. If those weren’t enough to put you back in 9/11’s memorably nauseated mood, try what follows: an extended scene of waterboarding by a guy who says “bro.” An instantly essential thriller, Zero Dark Thirty begins with a CIA interrogation in progress, then focuses more intently on the pallid young woman watching and allowing it to happen. Maya (The Help’s Jessica Chastain, exploring a new register of haunted drive) will become our surrogate. An agent drafted out of high school (the character is based on an actual person), she knows the hunt for “UBL” and nothing else. She’ll be coarsened by illegal tactics that may produce vital intel (an honest movie needs to go there, and this one does, boldly), she’ll see her colleagues tire and fail and, roughly a decade later, Maya will still be running down the globe’s most wanted terrorist.
As major as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker felt, it’s hard to appreciate the leap she takes here, launching her actors into scorched, obsessed territory last roamed by David Fincher’s Zodiac. The movie splays out like a dense procedural: a white SUV here, a Dubai playboy there. Barack Obama never appears, nor should he in a film so rooted in groundwork. The details are gripping, presented with respect for an audience’s intelligence. It all ends, of course, with a silent raid in the Pakistan night. You know the outcome, but are you ready for the banal bloodstain, the suddenness, the disquieting feeling of an itch that can’t be scratched?
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf