Review: 'Zero Dark Thirty' compelling, exciting

'Hurt Locker' filmmakers bring hunt for Bin Laden to life

POSTED: 08:26 AM PST Dec 19, 2012    UPDATED: 08:28 AM PST Dec 19, 2012 
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

In 2008, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal teamed up to make "The Hurt Locker," a very intense, although sometimes hard-to-swallow story about a bomb disposal expert in Iraq. The film walked away with a number of Academy Awards including "Best Picture" and the first-ever directing Oscar to be won by a woman.

With that movie completed, Bigelow and Boal returned to a project they'd been working on since 2006 -- the story about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan at the beginning of that war. Bigelow was just a few months away from starting to shoot when news came of the May 2011 Navy SEALs raid that killed the al-Qaeda leader. Bigelow and Boal decided to regroup, and tell the much larger story about the decade-long hunt to find Bin Laden. Luckily for them, they were able to hit the ground running, utilizing many of their same military and intelligence community contacts to tell this fascinating tale.

In "Zero Dark Thirty," which opened in limited release Wednesday and goes wide on Jan. 11, Jessica Chastain ("The Help") plays "Maya," the point person that the film revolves around. Based on a real CIA operative, she enters the hunt for Bin Laden early in the game. Some of the battle-toughed field agents aren't sure what to make of this young, attractive newcomer, but are warned, "She's a killer." Maya is unrelenting in tracking down leads, and although she seems a bit squeamish while witnessing her first waterboarding session, she then later coolly walks up a pleading suspect and tells him the blame is on him for "being untruthful."

Any moral judgments about what the agents are doing are left up to the audience to decide. The film begins with a powerful reminder of how everything started with a collection of audio recordings from 9/11, ranging from people in the hijacked planes, to air traffic controllers, to terrified office workers trapped in the doomed World Trade Center.

As the story moves forward, the complexity of the agents' task becomes more apparent. A lot of background is given in rapid-fire dialogue that's heavy with acronyms and abbreviations that are at times hard to follow, but audiences will get certainly get the gist: The trail to Bin Laden is murky, confusing and often very dangerous. The film vividly depicts some of the heartbreaking setbacks the CIA experienced during its long mission.
Chastain is superb, giving Maya both vulnerability and an iron will. Of course her character is not alone in this mission. Her fellow teammates include a veteran agent named Dan, (played by Jason Clarke of Showtime's "The Brotherhood") a guy who seems at ease whether he's in a suit at CIA headquarters or interrogating a suspect in Iraq. Other notable mentions are Jennifer Ehle as a fellow agent with whom Maya establishes a friendship, and Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights") as the CIA station chief in Pakistan. Even Tony Soprano shows up -- actor James Gandolfini has a small but memorable role as the CIA director.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is an unusual film in that the ads and trailer (thankfully) don't reveal very much about the movie. For those who are wondering, it does indeed depict the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, with the production re-creating the building in Jordan. That sequence is masterfully shot, with Bigelow heavily utilizing a night-vision look as the Navy SEALs slowly inch their way into and through the compound. It's one the most mesmerizing scenes in recent movie history.

In light of all the speculation during the recent presidential campaign that this movie was slanted toward the Obama administration, I feel obligated to point out something: This film is completely apolitical. It doesn't take sides and it certainly doesn't make one administration look better (or worse) than any other.

What can definitely be said about "Zero Dark Thirty" is that it's one of the most compelling, gut-wrenching and exciting motion pictures in years. It's a major achievement in filmmaking and will certainly be an Oscar contender.