And yet we’re meant to share Maya’s own impatience when she knows enough to make her educated guess and the higher-ups still refuse to take action. There are movie clichés in “Zero Dark Thirty” — Maya furiously scrawling on her boss’s office window the number of days ticking by — but they spring from the character’s drive rather than a desire to rile up the audience. Bigelow is more interested in moments of ordinary surrealism: a plaza full of burka-clad women and the one detail (black leather boots) that makes you realize they’re all CIA agents in disguise.
It’s a movie made with the same coolly fanatical attention to craft the lead character displays in her work. Bigelow is now recognized as one of our true filmmaking naturals — she always has been, even when no one was looking (go back and watch 1987’s “Near Dark”) — and “Zero Dark Thirty” holds us in its grip for 157 minutes, much of which is about people being stymied. The director’s identification with Maya is there for the taking, adding a bit more spine to the tale without turning it overtly personal.
Anyway, it’s not a personal film. Rather, it’s about one person’s critical place in the larger effort. As everyone knows by now, the final half hour of “Zero Dark Thirty” painstakingly re-creates the Navy SEALs’ attack of May 2, 2011, in which Osama and four others in the Abbottabad compound were killed. Bigelow films it not as a gung-ho rodeo but as a military procedural, with its own flaws, snafus, successes, corpses. Her camera is mostly embedded within the SEAL unit: We’re part of the team, it’s night, no one really knows what’s going on. The miracle is that it came off at all. The scene respects the SEALs as both professionals and stressed-out individuals, and when, at the end, Bigelow briefly revisits the compound’s dead — including a husband and wife whose weeping children survive them — it’s a moment that quietly but firmly underscores the humanness of everybody involved. Yes, even him.
That clarity extends to the movie’s coda, a small but telling moment. Our heroine, her decade-long mission accomplished, finally takes a breath and allows emotion to come flooding in, and, once again, Bigelow leaves the meaning up to us. Is it relief Maya feels for the vengeance she has so righteously served? Or despair at how little has actually changed?