THE ESSAYIST Christopher Hitchens once characterized the U.S./Afghan war as the world's most open society fighting the world's most closed society - he was particularly taken with the idea of U.S. female pilots dropping bombs on "those who would enslave women."
This way of looking at the conflict remained mostly unique to Hitchens, and in any case was supplanted by Iraq and other events. Now Kathryn Bigelow quietly takes it up in her absorbing hunt-for-Osama bin Laden drama, "Zero Dark Thirty."
"Zero" starts at Ground Zero: The first thing you hear is audio of someone on the verge of death in the World Trade Center. It's a woman on a floor above the flames, asking a dispatcher if help is coming. The dispatcher is also a woman. She says that help is coming, but we know that it's not, and the line goes dead.
Cut to a black ops site some years later, where CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) is using "enhanced interrogation techniques" on another man, a presumed terrorist (Reda Kateb). Another agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), new to this gruesome locale and its activities, looks on with difficulty.
The scene has already made "Zero" notorious - detractors say it can be read, next to the prologue, as a vengeful high-five (a misreading, in my opinion). "Zero" has also been hotly debated for the way it presents the role of torture in producing intelligence useful in locating bin Laden.
But longtime Bigelow watchers will notice something else here - the way the scene complements and illuminates the director's unique body of work.
Her first short film, "The Set-up," is nothing but two men beating the crap out of each other as other men debate the meaning of it all. You see this thread running through her features - "Blue Steel," "Point Break," "The Hurt Locker." Her movies are windows through which she observes the often-violent world of male behavior, the way violence informs their pecking orders, conflicts, even friendships (recall Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie's fistfight in "The Hurt Locker").
So, when we see Maya looking at the process of waterboarding with a mixture of fascination and horror, I think we see Bigelow herself.
And as Dan's lengthy "interrogation" of his subject continues, it follows a classic Bigelow line, framed as some strange masculine ritual. When Dan says he respects the detainee - his toughness, his loyalty, esprit de corps - we feel that he means it.
It's worth noting that Dan gets nowhere with this pitch. Left to his own torture devices, he'd still be "interrogating" the guy. Crucially, it is the new-in-town Maya who finds another way, carving out her place in the movie as a maverick tactician with innovative ideas struggling to be heard in a structure dominated by set-in-their-ways men.
Maya's methods yield a nugget of information she believes will lead to a terror-cell courier who will in turn lead to bin Laden himself. She pursues this theory obsessively and becomes a bit of an irritant to agency colleagues and higher-ups (Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini), some of whom come to regard her as one more agent driven nuts by the exasperating pursuit of bin Laden.
To others, she's a role model; one young woman, an analyst, says as much. It's this young woman who sifts through piles of existing data to discover another piece of information that aids Maya's cause.
Bigelow is working here with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal, who interviewed many of the operatives involved in the pursuit of bin Laden. Both say they worked hard to make this a fictional account that honors the essence of the lengthy, painstaking, fitful, deadly process to find and to kill the terrorist leader.
That process is certainly the foreground subject. There are other themes that reveal themselves in the movie's striking visuals, placing Maya (and fellow agent Jennifer Ehle, wonderful) as isolated figures in the mostly male landscape of terror and counterterror.
Take note of how many times Bigelow frames Maya as the lone woman in a roomful of men, or staring at a wall of leads, all bearded men staring back at her. (The scene in which she finally does make herself heard, using macho language that can't be ignored, is a highlight.)
When vindicated Maya takes her theory to the SEALs who'll conduct the Abbottabad mission, they view her as some exotic mascot, and call her "the girl."
Bigelow doesn't overdo it. This isn't "Erin Brockovich." The movie is a lot more subtle, much darker, Maya's journey less insistently inspiring. She enters as an outsider, possibly even a reformer. We see how she changes the process but also how the process changes her.
This Bigelow brings home during the climactic mission. Maya is chosen to be the agency's forward-deployed eyes on the Pakistan raid, one who kills its target but is also a defenseless woman. You feel the reverberations of that prologue.
And bin Laden's double-tap exit is not an emotional rallying point, just another event on the clinically executed SEAL raid. It's not the bullet to the eyeball that's the money shot here. It's "the girl" called upon to formally ID the corpse, then pull the zipper up on bin Laden - his body, his career, his nihilistic fantasies, his doomed caliphate.
The movie ends with Maya alone, again, pondering a deceptively simple question: Where do you want to go?
After 10 years of war and drones and tactics that have taken us to the edge of torture and back, it's a fair and open question.