Beginning with cellphone and 911 calls from Sept. 11, 2001, “Zero Dark Thirty” chronicles the career of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative doggedly pursuing the location of Osama Bin Laden.
The film is divided into four parts, most of which are separated by years. Each part tells a distinct story, in chronological order, and fits within the larger narrative of the CIA’s hunt for terrorists.
The first part, “The Saudi Group”, begins with the newly trained Maya being introduced to the world of CIA secret sites and the attempt to gain information from the prisoner Ammar (Reda Kateb). Dan (Jason Clark) begins the interrogation and is concerned that Maya might not be able to handle what she is going to see. Quickly, though, Maya works through her own uncertainty and suggests they continue with the interrogation rather than taking a break, even removing her mask so that Ammar can see her.
They are unable to get information in time to prevent the gunning down of civilians in Kohbar, Saudi Arabia. Maya realizes that since Ammar has been in isolation he doesn’t know that the attack was successful, so the might be able to get information out of him by making him believe he’d already given up his terrorist cell. The ruse works and Ammar gives up the names of his cell members, as well as a name that becomes Maya’s obsession: Abu Ahmed.
Maya’s search for Abu Ahmed begins in Part 2. She manages to get the name Fahraj from a prisoner and Dan sets up an operation to capture him. Once captured Fahraj proves to be hard to crack and Maya asks for Dan’s help. He tells her that he is quitting the interrogation business and is instead moving to DC to work out of the CIA head office.
Dan warns her that politics are changing and she should probably get out of the interrogation business, too. He tries to convince her to come with him, but she wants to stay in the field, thinking she can do more good there. Understanding, Dan warns her to watch her back because she’s known in Pakistan.
Some time later, Maya and Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) are waiting in the restaurant of the Marriot in Islamabad when a truck bomb blows up near the gate. They both escape but are shaken by the experience. Maya doesn’t eat in public afterward.
In part three, Jessica is going to plan a meeting with a mole in Bin Laden’s network. Jessica is excited, but there is some discussion of where to have a safe meeting with the mole, since he won’t leave Taliban territory and Jessica would surely be kidnapped in the tribal regions. There is finally agreement that Camp Chapman in Afghanistan would be an acceptably safe location for both parties.
It turns out to not be safe and Jessica is killed. Soon after getting news, Maya is informed that a prisoner has revealed that Abu Ahmed is dead, meaning all her work on the lead is now pointless. Turning her despair into resolution, Maya refocuses her efforts on finding the members of the plot that killed Jessica.
Maya learns from another agent about a lead on a man named Ibrahim Sayeed. His family is supposed to be involved in terrorist activities. Maya realizes the family resemblance among his brothers and deduces that the man assumed to be Abu Ahmed was actually the wrong picture. Ibrahim Sayeed is the real Abu Ahmed. She calls in a favor from Dan and gets him to find out Sayeed’s mother’s phone number. Using that, she is ultimately able to identify a location for monitoring and eventually identifies one of those living at that location to be Osama Bin Laden.
The final part involves the recruitment of Seal Team Six to complete the task of capturing or killing the third male at the compound identified by Maya. The operation takes the last quarter of the film and maintains a level of tension even though the outcome is known.
The bulk of “Zero Dark Thirty” feels like an episode of “Law and Order.” There are lots of facts to connect, names to learn and associations to understand. For all of that, though, the film was never boring. The film is long, but worthy of its length.
Jessica Chastain plays her character well. Her delivery of the interrogation lines is appropriately rote and distant while her emotions outside those interactions are real. Many times Maya seems exhausted and burnt out, but vibrant when she should be.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is engaging and thought provoking. Given the topic and the supposedly accurate information used to write the film, it can be disturbing and intense. I went in fearing that it would be a lot of dry material but found myself so engaged in the thought process behind Maya’s deductions and the challenges she faces trying to get the resources she needs I was disappointed when Part 4 began. I’d say that is a successful movie.