Two thousand twelve has been a gnarly year. It really doesn’t matter what you believe in or spend your time thinking about — the world is finding itself to be in a strange way these days, and the last year or so has definitely seen plenty more than its fair share of cataclysmic-type events. The world seems to be shaking itself down around us left and right, and it’s no surprise that we’ve sort of forced ourselves to come up with new kinds of modern-day mythmaking in the process. We’ve needed new ways to help ourselves rationalize and perhaps understand the weird things that we feel like we’re responsible for creating, perpetuating, participating in, and at the very least passively observing. So we tell stories about them.

Did anyone else find it odd that Cameron Crowe and Paul Greengrass had made movies about 9/11 less than five years after it happened? (Of course, there are those of us who have our reasons about why Greengrass would’ve made a movie like United 93 in the first place — maybe because he thought another Cameron Crowe might step up to the plate and try to tell that story if he didn’t.) I did, until I stopped and thought about why this might have happened. The cynic in me definitely wants some attention right about now, as “Money” is the most immediate and maybe even the most probable answer. I don’t know that things are that simple, though. I think that we can create a full-blown motion picture about a culturally cataclysmic event less than a half-decade after it happens because it helps us understand the world and ourselves. Has anyone else noticed that the box office has just been riddled with superheroes lately? Nobody’s going to argue with the idea of spending two hours feeling like they’ve got someone looking out for them right about now.

Zero Dark Thirty is obviously no comic book movie; it’s more a pro-level docu-drama. In fact, the riveting Into the Void (one of those true “how the hell did they actually pull this off?” type of movies) is the only film I can think of that blends relatively objective realism and high-stakes drama so deftly. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have served up a masterpiece of real life cinema, an event picture that could only have been produced in the Information Age, when it seems like everything that happens is documented whether it’s actually important or not. Scenes in the film that show Chastain’s character poring over intimidating stacks of video and DVD footage could easily reflect the way Boal and Bigelow felt as they decided which parts of this ten-plus-year-long story they needed to actually tell. It almost makes one wonder why movies like this get made in the first place. Did preference precipitate ability? Do we almost reflexively tell stories about ourselves so that we can make sense of an increasingly fucked-up world, and are we developing all these tools for constant documentation as a way of accommodating this growing need? Or have we realized that our relatively recent technological developments have turned anyone into a potential publisher, spurring our desire to tell stories about ourselves? Maybe a bit of both.

"God dammit, you will stop hunting for Osama bin Laden this INSTANT!"
"God dammit, you will stop hunting for Osama bin Laden this INSTANT!"

Either way, Zero Dark Thirty basically refuses to come across as a studio event picture; no surprise from a couple of professionals like Boal and Bigelow. The screenplay, which has been tweaked and adjusted to oblivion to accommodate the fact that its primary source is human history itself, is slow and deliberately paced. Nevertheless, it keeps things taut and never lets the viewer lose interest in each character and their respective journeys. All this is accomplished despite the fact that you know exactly what’s going to happen, and is more than likely the result of an accomplished screenwriter like Boal probably considering these very challenges when he sits down to write this kind of film in the first place.

While the end result is definitely a thrilling piece of movie, Zero Dark Thirty is absolutely not the Killin’ Bin Laden flick that some of us were hoping for. You’ll recognize the accuracy with which the raid and other military procedures were recreated if you got around to seeing that piece of propaganda bullshit Act of Valor, but for the most part Bigelow and Boal aim to make it clear that intelligence is the main fuel behind the reaction to 9/11. That, and emotion. Plenty of emotion. In fact, as Zero Dark Thirty skews further in the direction of the procedural, it zeroes in on the human element behind one of the biggest manhunts the world has ever seen, and focuses squarely on the woman who refused to let it go.

Jessica Chastain seriously brings the thunder as the only-physically-delicate-looking Maya, who has all of Carrie Matheson’s talent and brashness, without any of her crazy face crybaby tendencies. Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty winds up feeling like it’s the story of Maya’s struggle against the course of human history itself. At times, she seems almost single handedly determined to undo the fact that Osama bin Laden has all but disappeared from the face of the planet — she can’t, because he’s taken countless innocent lives and some of her closest friends with him. As bin Laden becomes less a man and more an idea or force, Chastain visibly grits her teeth and becomes more and more determined to snuff him out. When, for the first last time, she finally confronts (and in the same moment, conquers) the humanity behind the idea that bin Laden had eventually become, it’s practically too much for her to handle. Nobody really gets out of this movie alive. Even the soldier who actually shoots bin Laden (a role smartly reserved for someone who was not Chris Pratt or Joel Edgerton) spends the rest of the film with a weird, dead-eyed stare.

Zero Dark Thirty ends up being a film whose intention was clearly to depict the costs (to both sides) of going to war with an idea. Not since The Kingdom has a film done such a great job of depicting the emotional motivations behind each side when it comes to the War in Iraq. Both warring factions get the chance to be called “animals,” and each side acts in ways that earns the distinction. Either way, it’s a film that gives us a lot to think about. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a film that endorses torture. It’s simply one that depicts its use. Rather, ZDT is a movie that wants us to think about the fact that when the War on Terror is concerned, there isn’t really anyone who’s going to walk away feeling like they’ve truly “won.”