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'Zero Dark Thirty' is a great movie, an astonishing achievement on nearly every level.

12:41 PM, Jan. 11, 2013
Navy SEALs raiding Osama Bin Laden's compound in the dark night in 'Zero Dark Thirty.'
Navy SEALs raiding Osama Bin Laden's compound in the dark night in 'Zero Dark Thirty.' / Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc./Jonathan Olley

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Star rating:★★★★
Rated: R, for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

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“Zero Dark Thirty” is a great movie, an astonishing achievement on nearly every level.

It’s also a controversial one, generating heated debate about the intentions of the filmmakers, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Their film follows the long, frustrating and, for years, fruitless search for Osama bin Laden; the film was started before he was found and killed.

The movie begins in haunting fashion, with the screen dark for a couple of minutes. We hear frantic phone calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center, a riveting reminder of the attacks that set the search for bin Laden in motion.

Bigelow immediately fast-forwards a couple of years to a CIA camp where a captured al-Qaeda operative is being tortured. An agent (Jason Clarke) demands information, telling his prisoner he “owns” him. He is humiliated, waterboarded, stuffed into a tiny wooden crate, all to no avail. (Much more on this later.)

With the agent is a figure in a black ski mask. When they walk outside, the mask is removed. It is a woman, Maya (Jessica Chastain). She is single-minded of purpose: find bin Laden. As we see her move through the film, this is unchanging. It is what she does, it is who she is. We know almost nothing else about her.

It sounds like a lack of character development, but Chastain is so good we are riveted. She is as tough or tougher than any of the men she works with, who learn to stay out of her way. And the fact she is a woman is an added humilation to the al-Qaeda operatives she leans on for information.

Maya, who, like the other operatives, also relies on what the U.S. government would call “enhanced” interrogation techniques, hits upon an idea she can’t shake: If bin Laden doesn’t use cell phones or computers, he has to communicate some other way. He must rely on a courier. Find the courier, find bin Laden.

No one else buys it, and for years the trail stays cold. Leads are followed, people die. But the dogged Maya won’t give up. Finally, a tip. It takes a long time to convince the government bureaucracy to buy in (James Gandolfini has a nice turn as the CIA director with no time for niceties), but eventually a raid is approved on a home in Pakistan.

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This takes up the last quarter or so of the two-hour and 37-minute movie, and it’s nail-you-to-your-seat riveting. (Bigelow and Boal teamed for the Oscar-winning movie “The Hurt Locker.”) The Navy SEAL team that infiltrates the compound where bin Laden is hiding is ruthless, efficient and successful. And yet not celebratory; this was a job that took years and billions, but to these guys, it’s still a job.

Not to Maya. It’s her life. But also, part of the business, part of the game.

At question is the role torture played in getting the information that led to bin Laden’s discovery. We see it in graphic fashion. The tactics seem futile, and another attack occurs.

Later, the offer of some food and a cigarette yields more useful results. Does this mean the lighter touch worked? Or that the prisoner was so utterly broken by the earlier torture he gave up the information out of fear?

The U.S. government is adamant torture did not lead to bin Laden’s capture, though it acknowledges “enhanced” interrogation techniques took place. It’s not clear in the film that the methods led to much of anything.

It is abundantly clear, however, that “Zero Dark Thirty” is not a glorification of torture. It is not a glorification of anything, particularly. Instead, it’s a long, hard look at people going about their job, methodically, sometimes obsessively, until they get what they want.

It is intense, it’s thought-provoking and it’s important. All told, a brilliant movie.

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