There's a good chance you remember what you were doing when you found out Osama bin Laden had been killed. After living for a decade under the fading specter of real-life super-villainy, it was a genuine shock to most Americans that justice had finally been visited upon the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, and that it had taken an elite team of Navy SEALs less than 40 minutes in the wee hours of a Pakistani morning. Now, perhaps inevitably, we're invited to relive the fall of Osama bin Laden onscreen, and the creators of The Hurt Locker had every right to promise a climax that taps into personal angst in a way few action sequences could hope to. But how, given the glacial pace of the seemingly hopeless nine-year manhunt, did they propose to keep us awake while they got there?
However in the world they've managed it, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's Zero Dark Thirty is above all a startling achievement in the macro-level procedural thriller. Drawing freely on intelligence gathered throughout the CIA's Middle Eastern operations during the last decade, Boal's script distills every lurch and baby step through a fetching agent (Jessica Chastain) known only as Maya, who pops up everywhere—from an "enhanced interrogation" in 2003 to the Islamabad CIA outpost from which station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) was hurriedly removed in 2010. The through-line lets Boal and Bigelow tell the whole story of the hunt for bin Laden inside a personal framework, as Maya's passion quietly curdles into obsession.
Ret-conning all these events around a single figure is a bold move, especially since the fact of the real Maya's existence or nonexistence is classified. But despite a reach or two—Maya's presence for one memorable terrorist attack, for instance, relies too heavily on coincidence—Zero Dark Thirty achieves a remarkable credibility, especially considering how badly the dumb parts of Hurt Locker undercut the gravity of its peerless suspense set pieces. Zero Dark Thirty's sleek structure makes the slow coalescing of intelligence seem captivating, and, even though we have to take Boal and Bigelow at their word, there's never a sense of shortcutting. Maya is, after all, confronted with more impasses than breakthroughs on the long road to Abottabad, from the reservations of her superiors to certain controversial information-gathering techniques falling out of favor.
A word about the movie's much rumbled-about torture content, then. The same intellectual rigor that makes the film easy to swallow as a middle ground between fact and fiction is applied no more carefully than in its first 20 minutes. Maya sits in as a seasoned colleague (Joel Edgerton) extends the full Bush-era War on Terror welcome to a detainee (Reda Kateb), who eventually capitulates and serves as Zero Dark Thirty's first toppled domino. That the film declines any hand-wringing over "enhanced interrogation" techniques doesn't imply support on Boal or Bigelow's part; they're presenting events as they understand them to have happened.
Those who criticize Bigelow and Boal for suggesting that locating bin Laden was a direct result of torture are similarly off-base; the information is finally acquired through deception much more than coercion. What's actually interesting about torture in Zero Dark Thirty is how its context and matter-of-factness invite reflection on the topic beyond a simple "yes" or "no." Perhaps those offering labored objections are really giving insight into how effectively their values were challenged.
And then, after two remarkably brief hours of scouring the Arab world for America's Most Wanted of All Time, we meet SEAL Team Six. There are a handful of brief suspense sequences peppered throughout the movie, all executed with the same skill that powers the procedural scenes and should rocket Bigelow to the upper reaches of the A-list, but there's never a question, structurally, of where the film's building tension will find its release. From the moment stealth helicopters stalk across the border into northern Pakistan, the film seems to hold its breath along with the audience, with the entire breach and raid of bin Laden's compound playing out in a painfully realistic hush, trading normal action flourishes for night vision, special-ops protocol, and silenced gunshots that come and go before we realize who's fired. Even the fate of their target is stunningly underplayed, giving it the appropriate heft and perhaps even nodding to those who found the worldwide celebration of a bullet to the head distasteful.
And while it's Bigelow's mastery that turns a largely spying-free spy movie into one of the two or three best films of 2012, it's that deference to our personal lens on the War on Terror that makes Zero Dark Thirty significant; the movie justifies the role it will play as a mainstreamed historical record in the decades to come. We don't have to approve of torture, or disregard for sovereign borders, or even symbolic vengeance against a man sidelined by his own infamy, and there's no suffering through agenda or sensationalism. We only have to reflect on what did happen—or, failing that, revel in the craft that can turn a dry history lesson into a gripping good time at the movies.