Still from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 156 minutes. Maya (Jessica Chastain).

KATHRYN BIGELOW’S ZERO DARK THIRTYone of the best films of the year, and the best-titled—begins in literal darkness. Over a black screen, the recordings of those trapped inside the twin towers on September 11 (“I’m gonna die”), and those of the 911 operators who tried to calm them (“You’re doing fine, ma’am”), buzz and crackle, building to an excruciating cacophony of terror and chaos. What follows is the decadelong hunt for the man who ordered those attacks, Osama bin Laden: ten years of black sites and stygian nightmares.

ZDT, like Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker (2008), about a three-man bomb-disposal team during the Iraq Waq, was written by journalist Mark Boal. Where the earlier movie, though informed by Boal’s having been embedded in 2004 in Iraq with an explosive-ordnance-disposal squad, consisted of fictional characters, ZDT hews closer to the historical record, the result of Boal’s extensive interviews with the CIA operatives tasked with tracking down bin Laden.

The monomania of one of those agents, Maya (Jessica Chastain), based on a real CIA officer who remains undercover, serves as the organizing principle in this supremely taut compression of a decade’s worth of international politics, further terrorist attacks, CIA infighting, and intelligence dead ends, culminating in the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011. That we learn little of Maya’s backstory—she’s single; recruited out of high school, she’s worked for the agency for twelve years, focusing solely on bin Laden—further heightens ZDT’s immediacy, its reckless, runaway forward motion.

What ZDT conveys better than any other film made about September 11 or its aftermath is the dizzying sense of the globe spinning off its axis, of moral compasses spiraling wildly with no fixed poles—of a world in which innocent civilians are blown up and odious practices become national policy. As you may have heard, ZDT contains scenes of a prisoner, Ammar (Reda Kateb), a presumed Al Qaeda operative, being tortured: He is waterboarded, held in chains and caked in his own shit, sleep deprived, sexually humiliated, and forced into a box the size of a child’s bureau drawer. These unsparing episodes of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” imperative to include in an accurate account of the agency’s tactics to find bin Laden, have been wildly misread by film critics and other journalists as Bigelow and Boal’s endorsement of torture. (For one pundit, not seeing the film did not prevent him from attacking it or from making analogies between Bigelow and Leni Riefenstahl.)

These detractors, who equate the depiction of an event with “glorifying” it, argue that Ammar’s later providing a name crucial to the bin Laden hunt means that the filmmakers are explicitly making a case for the efficacy of torture. But they have missed ZDT’s larger, more nuanced points. The scenes of Ammar’s abuse are unyieldingly repugnant: Disgust is registered more than once on the face of Maya, here serving as the audience’s surrogate. At one point the detainee babbles nonsense “information” just to make the torture stop; when he does offer up the important name, he does so not after being roughed up but after more humane treatment. Most significantly, the torture scenes are dwarfed—in both length and significance to the bin Laden mission—by Maya’s tenacious intel work.

Her tenacity is matched by the film’s laser-sharp focus; ZDT unfolds like a detail-crammed dossier. The specifics are indelible: an IM exchange between Maya and another agent as a source arrives (“He’s here! BRB.” “Cool!”); one of the Navy SEALs listening to Tony Robbins (“I got big plans after this”) in a helicopter minutes before the Abbottabad raid. Though all are potent, no one image in ZDT quite matches the power of its final shot—a summary of the horror, grief, and ongoing despair of the post-9/11 universe.

Melissa Anderson

Zero Dark Thirty opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 19 and nationally on January 11.

Amy Taubin’s 1000 Words with Kathryn Bigelow appears in the January issue of Artforum.