We tortured people.
But you probably knew that already. No matter how little actual useful information it yielded, the United States set aside international laws and tortured detained terror suspects in the process of tracking down Osama bin Laden. And a lot of discussion is already taking place about whether or not this film, which matter-of-factly depicts that torture, endorses the practice.
Following CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) as the movie streamlines and lightly fictionalizes the 10-year-long hunt for the man behind the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the United States, director Kathryn Bigelow takes the procedural model and brushes away every unnecessary detail, leaving behind a heavy, blunt object of a film that is also hugely watchable, engrossing and, best of all -- especially for a plot whose outcome is very common public knowledge -- highly suspenseful. Already experienced with this world after The Hurt Locker, Bigelow skillfully translates screenwriter Mark Boal's journalistic script into a powerful, propulsive three hours that never feels labored or bogged down by its own complexity. If a very long, documentary-adjacent movie about killing a terrorist can be called "a good time," then this is the one.
Jessica Chastain has a lot to do with that. Her fascinating Maya moves kind of like a Shaolin monk, laserlike in focus, totally driven and never once guilty of the kind of fragile unraveling displayed by Claire Danes's unstable character on Homeland. Her nerves aren't raw, they're made of steel. When repeatedly referred to as "the girl" by the men surrounding her, or when questioned by other characters about her personal life, her response is a silent stare. When Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) asks her who she is in the grand scheme of locating the bin Laden hideout, she responds, "I'm the mother&#%@er who found that place." Even the Navy SEAL Team 6 guys defer to her and she doesn't flinch when watching "enhanced interrogation." As one higher-up (Mark Strong) comments, "It's her against the world." She's going to catch bin Laden if she has to do it all by herself and Chastain holds the screen and gives the character the movie's only almost-emotional punch, humanizing its no-nonsense narrative of female agency. It's as much about her as it is about what happens when ground-level foreign policy involves the search for both justice and revenge.
But back to that torture. How thoughtful people throughout the moviegoing world will respond to this film will probably be just as informed by how the Bush and Obama administrations conducted themselves during that decade as it will be by what transpires on screen. The complaints will, of course, hang on the torture scenes and real boundaries really crossed. They're the most incendiary moments. But in the film's defense, none of those scenes are depicted with a USA! USA! USA!-style glee or given the weight of efficacy. Instead, they're reported with the detached tone of "yeah, that happened," and it can be argued that to do it any other way would upset the otherwise morally neutral tone. It won't make those extra-movie complaints less valid, of course. It'll just mean they'll have to be taken up with someone other than Kathryn Bigelow.