Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
(2012, R, 157 minutes)

The Hurt Locker was the most acclaimed American film of 2009, and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, made history by becoming the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about it; I considered it an above-average war film with familiar tropes, so I considered the hype for Zero Dark Thirty more skeptically and entered with lower expectations, but I left with a spring in my step. It’s an intriguing film that becomes engrossing, and finally thrilling. In a season marked by many good films but few I’ve been passionate about, it’s a sure bet for my list of the year’s best films.

But it doesn’t achieve its effect through breakneck action. It’s a methodical film, long at 157 minutes, but perfectly paced. In its obsessive, detail-driven account of the search for Osama bin Laden over nearly a decade following 9/11, it’s reminiscent of David Fincher‘s Zodiac, which followed reporters and police officers who lost sleep – and perhaps a bit of their sanity – in pursuit of the title San Francisco serial killer.

The film follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA analyst assigned to Pakistan, where she witnesses interrogations of terror suspects and participates in water-boarding and humiliation. The film takes no moral position on prisoner abuse, which is not to say that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal don’t have one. In this film they choose to observe from a perspective of character rather than politics. Maya, initially shocked by the brutality, becomes accustomed to these methods to the point where they are matter-of-fact.

Boal’s screenplay immerses us in names, faces, places, and shop-talk early on, and it took me time to settle into this parallel world of CIA operatives, which exists in the chasing of shadows far under the surface of world affairs. But throughout Maya is our entry point. In a way she reflects a broader American condition following 9/11: the restlessness of unfinished business, a frustration with our institutions, and a lingering anxiety in anticipation of continued violence. She bears a strong resemblance to the Carrie Mathison character from Showtime’s Homeland, though I prefer this less lovesick version.

Time passes, and the closer she gets to bin Laden the farther away he seems and the more she loses in the process. In that gradual build-up, leading finally to a suspicious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the film expertly sets the stage for the climactic Seal Team Six mission; the final thirty minutes or so are white-knuckle tense, with Bigelow guiding us through the moment-by-moment infiltration in what feels like real time until … well, you know how it ends, but the payoff here is both carefully restrained and deeply emotional. After wrestling with shadows, we at last for a moment come into the light.