Everyone knows how Zero Dark Thirty ends: with the killing of Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani compound by SEAL Team 6.
But it's how it begins -- with the hauntingly effective use of voices of the 9-11 victims and then a pummeling abuse of a prisoner at a clandestine CIA "black site" -- that has inflamed the passions of both conservatives and liberals. Yet, for the viewer, it's like being shoved down a dark tunnel into a shadowy world of intrigue, suspicion and horror. That world comes brutally alive in Kathryn Bigelow's new film, a harrowing adventure behind the headlines that is at once a riveting procedural and, at the same time, a bracing political statement on the moral ambiguities of our war on terror.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA analyst who is single-mindedly on the trail of Osama bin Laden, even when her boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), wants her to spend less time on it. Maya is introduced to the world of "enhanced interrogation" through another agent, Dan (Jason Clarke), who lets her watch while he assaults and humiliates Ammar (Reda Kateb). At first, she seems uncomfortable, as if she might put a stop to it, but ultimately it only seems to harden her heart and resolve.
But it's going to take a lot more than jailhouse savagery to get bin Laden. It's going to take gumshoe detective skills, and that means everything else in Maya's life -- which we're given few clues about -- is pushed aside.
It's the slow piecing together of evidence -- along with the increasing urgency fueled by events such as the London bus bombing in 2005 and the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in 2008 -- that gives Maya the impetus to keep going.
Chastain, playing a very different character from the one people know her from in The Help, possesses a palpable toughness, even if she isn't physically overwhelming. There are a couple of moments that ring false (even if they did really happen), as when she uses a smart-mouth profanity in front of CIA director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini). But those are overwhelmed by a performance that feels just right.
She's helped along by Clarke, an Australian actor who may now zoom to star status after years of yeoman work in everything from the TV series Brotherhood to the action movie Death Race.
Then there's the planning and the execution of the raid itself, the back half of the film, where you feel as if you're just one pair of night-vision goggles away from the two SEAL Team members we get to know best, Patrick (Joel Edgerton) and Justin (Chris Pratt). As she displayed in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow is an expert at capturing the claustrophobia of combat.
Yet, after the deed is done, it doesn't feel quite celebratory for Maya. She seems to realize that the aftershock of war for her, and by extension for all of us, will be around for a long time.
As written by Mark Boaz and envisioned by Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty is no simple, action-hero victory dance around bin Laden's body. It's a powerful, philosophically troubling look at recent events strained through the prism of Bigelow's gripping artistic vision. Simply put, Zero Dark Thirty is the best film of 2012.
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