Zero Dark Thirty begins in brutal fashion. Well, emotionally speaking, anyway. The first two minutes of director Kathryn Bigelow’s high-stakes CIA action thriller set the tone for the rest of the film, as blackness bathes the screen and the only audio is that of horrified World Trade Center victims making phone calls to emergency dispatchers and loved ones. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” one woman whimpers. Then, silence. It’s an unsettling opening sequence, especially for American audiences, which forces viewers to relive the atrocities of September 11th, and bestows the feeling of a personal need to find and destroy the responsible party. The thirst for revenge is palpable, and the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is on.

Cue Maya (a wonderful Jessica Chastain), the young, reserved-yet-fiery protagonist, whom we first meet at a CIA black site in Pakistan two years after the World Trade Center attack as she witnesses the “enhanced interrogation” of a detainee. During two unnerving torture scenes, in which the prisoner is milked for intelligence on bin Laden through techniques such as waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation and confinement in a small box, Maya looks away several times, seemingly betraying a weak stomach for the degradation and pain of the incarcerated. But don’t let this behavior, or her appearance — which fronts a kindness and feminine sensitivity — fool you. “Washington says she’s a killer,” Joseph Bradley, the CIA Islamabad station chief, says of the young gun, and she proves to be the one pushing to continue interrogations instead of taking a coffee break. The theater air becomes thick with Maya’s unyielding determination, which practically oozes out of her every pore. Indeed, this assignment has been the terrorist trouncer’s entire life in the CIA, ever since she was plucked by the agency straight from high school. While a small contingent of operatives occasionally offers support to Maya, her hunt for the Al-Qaeda kingpin is mostly a go-it-alone ordeal, recalling those great American cowboys who roamed the Wild West in solitude and exacted justice on gun-wielding wrongdoers. Except the Middle East is Maya’s forum, and she has a lot of men in suits telling her what she can and cannot do. She manages to cut through the red tape, however, and Zero Dark Thirty depicts the operation predominantly as a one-woman show instead of a massive government undertaking — this agency workhorse is the one putting in long hours at the office in pursuit of a lead, the one who eventually identifies the location of bin Laden’s refuge, and the one to ID bin Laden’s body-bagged corpse.

Chastain delivers a lovely, impassioned performance as the film’s heroine, one that has earned her accolades aplenty and a Best Actress Oscar nomination, on top of a more tangible Golden Globe prize in the best dramatic actress category. Chastain’s greatest triumph on screen arguably lies in her non-speaking embodiment of Maya as she invigorates her character with an impressive array of wordless emotional response; although that’s not to say she doesn’t have some stellar lines to boot, sometimes even adding a pinch of comedic relief to lighten the somber mood, if only temporarily. The closing shot — a close-up of Maya, flooded with the realization of her 10-year-long mission being at its end — is the icing on this delicious serving of cinematic cake, and Chastain’s finest acting showcase in the picture. Unfortunately, Zero Dark Thirty harps a bit too much on the breaking-the-glass-ceiling aspect of the story. Langley, Virginia is a masculine stronghold, and men unsurprisingly doubt Maya every step of the way. She confronts this sexism head-on with a heated speech on more than one occasion, making the strong woman vs. obstinate man scenario feel rather cliché and taking away from what is otherwise a strong character.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team that collaborated on Iraq war-set flick The Hurt Locker (2008), reunited for this masterful piece of filmmaking and offered some splendid off-screen talent to the production. The screenplay’s pacing is calculated and methodical, and works to build tension beautifully throughout the film, so much so that during the climactic scene — the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan — the audience is like a spring-loaded piston ready to fire (no insignificant feat, considering the outcome is hardly a surprise). The portrayal of the Navy SEAL Team 6 operation is a stroke of cinematographic brilliance, and by far the most visually commanding of the movie. After the SEALs unload from a pair of helicopters and begin their ground assault on the hideout, Bigelow shoots the action by handheld camera. The sequence alternates between an eerie night-vision coloration and almost total darkness, so that the silhouettes of the characters are barely discernible as they maneuver around the complex with stealth and precision. It’s an intense progression that’s executed flawlessly, and will leave viewers feeling as if they’re sitting with President Obama watching the attack unfold just as it happened May 2, 2011.

Boal and Bigelow present the narrative as a journalistic endeavor as much as an artistic one, telling the semi-fictionalized tale with documentary-like verity. The opening credits report that the movie is based on first-hand accounts of actual events, and indeed the duo uphold that Maya’s character isn’t a composite, but is grounded in an authentic female CIA agent. Newsreel footage of events such as televised presidential addresses, and staged depictions of real-life events like the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in 2008, help to strengthen the illusion of historic veracity. Bigelow certainly doesn’t sugarcoat anything during the final showdown either, as SEALs pump several bullets into motionless bodies and the deceased lay in thick pools of their blood. The absence of a patriotic sheen on the military feat is certainly noteworthy. There’s no celebratory “hoorah” chanting in this seemingly objective presentation of the operation (of which it must be said the public knows very little) — it’s more a portrayal of men carrying out their duties efficiently and matter-of-factly. Their lack of zeal, combined with Maya’s subdued reaction to seeing a deceased bin Laden (her entire professional career has led up to this one crowning moment and all she can muster is a deadpan stare) leaves a slightly sour taste in the audience’s mouth. A nagging question lingers: Was bin Laden’s death worth the lives lost and the wartime brutality, or do the negatives trump the positive? The picture doesn’t offer any answers, but it surely gets the conversation flowing.

Unfortunately for Zero Dark Thirty, the chitchat has honed in on the political and moral controversy surrounding its supposed endorsement of torture, and has clouded much of the work’s successes. Bigelow and Boal have had to withstand an onslaught from critics, which even include U.S. congressmen, decrying the depiction of enhanced interrogation tactics. Although for all the buzz and verbal wrangling over the film’s alleged pro-torture slant, Zero Dark Thirty actually comes across as quite ambivalent on the matter. Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA officer, utilizes a vicious interrogation strategy involving torture in the first few scenes of the movie. Addressing the captive, Dan confidently asserts, “In the end everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology.” But for all Dan’s sure-footedness, the detainee remains impervious to his bad-cop routine, the questioning yielding little results aside from agonized yelps. Sure, Maya and Dan eventually procure crucial information from the prisoner — he divulges the alias of a man said to be working as bin Laden’s personal courier. However, it’s in the context of a friendly environment, when the captive is offered amenities like food and a cigarette while seated at a table, instead of in the throes of waterboarding and verbal assault. Another detainee, having already been tortured to his breaking point, agrees to provide any desired information to his captors, expressing, “I do not want to be tortured again.”

Conversely, the picture also rewards outstanding investigative effort — without Maya’s relentless research and probing, by nonviolent means, bin Laden would still be at large, the film suggests. For what it’s worth, Bigelow stands by her “depiction is not endorsement” argument, writing in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, “I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore.” Bigelow would have us believe torture is just another element of the flick’s documentary style — a morally reprehensible way to gather intelligence, but part of U.S. policy at the time nonetheless, and as such a detail that the filmmakers couldn’t omit.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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