GREG'S GRADE: A
World events have done much of the work for "Zero Dark Thirty," the viewers bringing context into the theater with them. For a decade, al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was the devil incarnate in the western world, inspiring and ordering his followers to murder thousands across the globe. The Middle East is an area of perpetual danger and fear, especially if you're a young, white woman working for the CIA.
Even in its early scenes, when we know the killing of bin Laden is years away and intelligence operatives run into frustration or worse at every turn, the film pulses with tension, suspense and the dread that this real-life boogeyman either will disappear forever or come out of hiding and end civilization as we know it.
"Zero Dark Thirty," from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team behind "The Hurt Locker," and allegedly "based on firsthand accounts of actual events," is a masterful film chronicling the biggest manhunt the world has ever seen.
We follow a young CIA officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain) assigned in 2003 to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. She insists the notion that bin Laden is holed up in a cave is pre-9/11 thinking and it's more likely that he's living in a city and in communication with his terrorist network.
Through controversial scenes depicting the torture of detainees, she learns of a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a personal courier for bin Laden. Though her superiors disagree at times, Maya is adamant that this courier is the key to finding bin Laden and literally spends years following this one lead.
Maya's obsession is the movie's driving force, providing momentum even as the manhunt repeatedly stalls. We view events through her eyes, which gives the whole story a personal, emotional touch, elevating it far above the dry recitation of facts it could have been. We know nothing of Maya's background, only that she has spent her entire CIA career -- the agency recruited her out of high school -- tracking bin Laden, yet the film is as much a character study as it is a chronicle of recent history and an action movie.
Chastain is wonderful and likely to win an Oscar for her performance. Her dogged determination keeps us centered when the film threatens to get bogged down by a parade of bureaucrats and detainees. She gives us a real rooting interest, despite an ending that has been publicized as much as any news story in recent memory.
The final act covers the famed Navy SEAL raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that served as bin Laden's hideaway. Again, we know where this is going, but Bigelow turns it into a thrilling sequence. Dimly lit (the movie's title refers to a military term for 12:30 a.m., the time of the raid) and shot with handheld cameras (though not with the queasy, shaky-cam style so many action movies favor today), it captures the uncertainty everyone -- except Maya -- felt over whether bin Laden actually was living there.
It's a harrowing climax that results not in cheers and standing ovations, but a solemn acknowledgement of the weight of this monumental moment in history. Though it surely takes some dramatic license, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a worthy document of that moment and the people who made it possible.
Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language. 157 minutes.