1. I've always thought the best compliment you can give a movie is that, while it's playing, you forget not only that you are watching a movie, but also that you are a person with a life that was going on before the movie and will continue going on afterward. These are the transformative films, the ones that transport you somewhere outside of your body, transfix, mesmerize you. These are the ones that remind you why movies are immersive in a way no other medium is; these are the ones that you wait for. Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies. It grabs you by the brain and squeezes.
2. The movie is about the search for Osama bin Laden, opening with a black screen and various horrific sounds of September 11—explosions, screams, terrified, doomed 911 calls. The die is cast, in 15 seconds: Find who did this. We meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative assigned to the bin Laden beat weeks after September 11 who, doggedly and in self-destructive fashion, stays on the case for the next decade-plus. The movie simply follows her and those who work with her, following every clue, chasing down every dead lead, plunging down every dark alley in search of something, anything, that could lead to bin Laden.
We don't learn a lick about Maya, or anybody else, outside of the hunt. Everyone's personal life is kept off-screen, if it even exists at all. I found myself surprised that Maya is, in fact, a real person, albeit an anonymous one. In a lesser film, she'd be a composite, generic Hero Character. (Sort of the way that Ben Affleck is in Argo, now that I'm thinking about it.) Here, though, she's a lonely warrior, a constant pest ... a real pain in the ass. Exactly the type of person you don't want hunting you down.
3. The bin Laden hunt history is something every American is at least vaguely aware of, from "smoke 'em out" to "wanted dead or alive" to "I don't spend that much time on him." We went from vowing vengeance to being distracted by other wars to pretending we didn't care if we found him or not to having parties in the street once we learned he was dead. None of this matters to Maya, though: Her focus is the through-line in the film, and Chastain is terrific at showing how this hunt is tearing Maya apart, and that won't slow her down in the slightest. It's fascinating to see how other characters react to Maya; they basically just keep jumping out of her way, lest they get run over. Eventually, when the right clue comes along, she pounces, and everyone gets on board, including, ultimately, CIA chief Leon Panetta (played with bemused charm by James Gandolfini). Maya is a force of nature's fury, an avenging angel. She's the one who never stops.
4. There has been some talk about whether or not the film condones torture; the first 15 minutes of the film consist of a brutal torture scene, including waterboarding. The debate about this has existed outside the movie, and in large part among people who haven't seen it. The political posturing both ways would be hindsight horsehockey to Maya and her team in Zero Dark Thirty; they're too busy, you know, working.
The movie never explicitly claims torture helped the hunt for bin Laden in the slightest. It shows Maya using whatever she can, including torture, to connect the dots; like many of her other techniques, the torture doesn't seem to work. Zero Dark Thirty isn't a straight line of this-happened-and-this-happened-and-this-happened-and-then-boom-we-got-him. It is about the detours, the mistakes, the compromises, the dead ends. These missteps, these moral compromises ... they make the ultimate success all the more triumphant. The persistence, the pain, the obsession, is justified.
5. The film is so tense that you're practically spent before they even get the guy. But Bigelow, skilled and taut throughout, flexes her action-scene muscles in the grand finale in Abbottabad. The half-hour-plus raid sequence that closes the film left me breathless; thank heavens I already knew how it would end. (The sequence also features a surprisingly muscular and intimidating Chris Pratt as one of the primary Seal Team Six members.) By the time the film was over, and all that focus and intensity and tension was released, I found myself almost gasping for air.
Bigelow has always been an impressively kinetic filmmaker, but she's achieved an epic, almost revolutionary feat of filmmaking here. It's a historical timeline, a pulsating thriller, a moving character study and a true-life violent revenge story, all in one, told in a sweating, oppressive, strangling fashion. The film I find myself comparing it most to is United 93. But that film was set in just one place, that airplane. Zero Dark Thirty sustains its power on a set that is the whole world. A week later, I still haven't shaken it.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.