Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Action/Adventure Rated R

What is Jessica Chastain doing in Zero Dark Thirty?

That’s the crucial question for this sprawling espionage film, which dramatizes the hunt for Osama bin Laden from the days following the 9/11 attacks to the bullets that left him dead on May 2, 2011. It’s a movie of tough talk, macho posturing and frantic action, and at the center of it is Chastain – the delicate and ethereal young mother figure from films such as Take Shelter and The Tree of Life. Chastain is not exactly the barking type, yet here she is anchoring the film as Maya, the brash C.I.A. researcher who doggedly pursues the most minute details – some of which have been extracted by torture – until they add up to the Pakistani compound in which bin Laden is hiding.

Is this a case of miscasting? At times it seems like it. Take, for instance, the scene in which Maya learns that some of her coworkers have been killed by a suicide bomber. “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op,” she hisses. “Then I’m going to kill bin Laden.” Chastain does her best Clint Eastwood, but she doesn’t sell the scene. It’s almost nonsensical.

But maybe that’s the point. Zero Dark Thirty is directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), a Hollywood action veteran who’s had a good deal of experience as a woman playing a “boy’s game.” In a sense, Maya’s doing the same thing. Often the only female in the room (though not always), she uses vulgar language and aggressive gestures to fit in, even if it doesn’t fit her. And as the only operative to push the theory that leads to bin Laden’s discovery, she ultimately beats them at their own game (something Bigelow did when The Hurt Locker won the Best Picture Oscar in 2009).

Much of Zero Dark Thirty works to subvert the gender expectations we might have as an audience.

So there’s more going on here than odd casting. If you watch Chastain closely, you’ll notice the layers at work. Rather than trying to put on a tough-babe persona – the sort that defines Angelina Jolie’s action outings – Chastain stays true to the natural tools given to her. The thin, high voice; the slight frame; the fair hair and skin – these are delicate things, but Chastain doesn’t try to alter them. Instead, she forces the question: what if the best C.I.A. agent in the room had this sort of unorthodox physical presence? Part of Maya’s struggle is to be taken seriously among men who are prone to write her off because she doesn’t fit the mold. When she strains – when she awkwardly swears or yells while holding back tears – it may not be the sort of macho behavior we expect in these sorts of movies, but it’s true to the character.

Indeed, much of Zero Dark Thirty works to subvert the gender expectations we might have as an audience (in this way it’s actually quite similar to another film from this year, Brave). That’s why Mark Strong – as a top-level C.I.A. suit who reams out his team at one point with a stereotypical, alpha-male rant – is also the target of Maya’s disdain when she provides him crucial evidence which he fails to act upon. It’s her walk, not his talk, that matters. She may not look or act the part – in the film’s narrative or the narrative of this genre – but she gets the job done.

What else does Zero Dark Thirty offer? Its depiction of torture suffered by U.S. detainees will be a harsh slap in the face for many American audiences who haven’t wanted to face such realities (Jason Clarke is chilling as an insidiously intimate C.I.A. interrogator). And the climactic dramatization of the raid on bin Laden, as you’d expect from Bigelow, thrums with tension. It’s fitting, though, that this picture ends not with that moment of military triumph, but with a shot of Maya, alone, giving new meaning to the sexist cliche “cries like a girl.”