I believe in years to come, “Zero Dark Thirty” will be held in reverence with other great war movies like “Das Boot,” “The Battle of Algiers,” and “Saving Private Ryan.” All of these movies, while ostensibly about a battle or campaign were actually about something deeper: the human condition whilst under the bloody sky of war. Kathryn Bigelow’s film is special because its real task is not to visually portray events bookended by September 11, 2001 and the killing of Osama bin Laden, as the trailer or synopsis would have one believe, but rather to show a series of scenes to the audience which lead it to undergo the emotions that those who lived in that time period felt. In this regard, the film may be the best answer to “What was it like after 9/11?” Its response is not an answer but a progression of feelings and unanswerable questions.

For an example of Bigelow’s emotional chemistry experiment on the audience, the opening scene is a stunner: the screen is black and we hear a mix of recordings of emergency calls on Septermber 11, 2001. We hear the anguish of the 911 operators, the panicked (and correct) assessment from those trapped in the towers that no one was coming to help and that they were going to die. It’s a scene as scorching and destructive as the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” and Bigelow has us horrified, scared, sad, and very angry within one minute of the film’s beginning.

The next scene, however, is in a black site where the (Torture? Extreme interrogation measure?) of a detainee begins. As angry and vengeful as we were in the first scene, we are very quickly taken to wondering just how far we are willing to take visiting monstrous action upon monsters before becoming monstrous ourselves. Into this scene Bigelow inserts Maya (Jessica Chastain) who will be the audience’s proxy. Fresh-faced and squeamish (ma non troppo) in the opening scene, we’re aware that we’re going to see her hardened over the course of this movie: it’s inevitable, we know it, Bigelow knows it, and even Maya knows it. The subtlety of Chastain’s performance and keen ability to emote facially is absolutely critical to allowing her to be our proxy and, thus, to the success of the film itself. We see her sign up for a job which she knows will poison a section of her heart and kill the self she has known to that point. The scale of her sacrifice is mammoth (this topic is well-covered by Orson Scott Card in “Ender’s Game” and its sequel “Xenocide”).

Aside: I believe Bigelow could have made this movie entirely POV or just shown scenes one after another and still have achieved the goal of leading the audience on a meditation of the emotions that this arc elicits. I’m sure no studio would have gone for it given the amount of money at play, but it would have been an interesting idea.

Bigelow deftly moves us through a variety of emotional shifts: from fear to vengeance to disgust to shame to joy to defiance to patriotism to betrayal to sorrow to relief to bafflement in the course of this film. I can’t recall the last film for which plot was actually so seemingly extraneous — perhaps Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” (Jessica Chastain again being key to that bit of emotional impressionism). By these measures we re-experience (for those of us who lived through it) the emotional landscape of 2001-2012. Bigelow has constructed an emotional stimulation device that will give future generations the means to experience the “what was it like” of this period in history that will compliment the facts that will be coldly written in black and white.
Hers is a magnificent achievement.

And the final scene, which is played so perfectly by Chastain, is possibly one of the most touching in film. The proxy character, when asked where she wants to go after running a seven year manhunt that culminated in lethal success cannot speak but sheds a silent tear. It’s of the elegiac tenor of “Jesus wept.” In that regard the film again accurately captures what 2013 is like. Where shall we go from here?