Hang on tight. The knockout punch of the movie season is being delivered by Zero Dark Thirty. You're in for a hell of a ride with this high-voltage thriller that digs with shocking gravity into the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal top their Oscar-winning work in The Hurt Locker by exposing the raw feelings still simmering after 9/11.
The film opens with voices in the towers crying for help. It ends on May 2nd, 2011, when Navy SEAL Team Six took out the Al Qaeda leader at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, at zero dark thirty (that's half past midnight). But the killing is only part of the story. Bigelow and Boal go beyond the SEAL heroics examined in Mark Owens' bestselling memoir, No Easy Day, plunging into the byzantine layers of the CIA, where operatives – low-and high-echelon, trackers and torturers – spend years at the chase. We see the toll reflected on the face of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA targeter (based on a real agent still undercover) who hasn't yet grown calluses over the places where she can still feel.
Chastain is a marvel. She plays Maya like a gathering storm in an indelible, implosive performance that cuts so deep we can feel her nerve endings. Hollywood formula is out. No love story. No flag-waving. No politics. Just a look at people on a job where action defines character. Bigelow is a virtuoso at building suspense without compromising truth. Her talent is off the charts. And Boal, a journalist with an unerring ear for the tensions vibrating under CIA- and military-speak, goes beyond research to find the human side of history.
Victories are limited and costly in the war against terrorism. Zero Dark Thirty knows that in its bones. A harrowing early scene in which a CIA enforcer, Dan (a terrific Jason Clarke), waterboards a suspect, Ammar (Reda Kateb), stands in marked contrast to Obama on TV claiming America won't tolerate torture. Maya cringes when Dan yanks Ammar around with a dog collar. But she doesn't fade. After years of strategic but mind-numbing work to track bin Laden's hiding place, she shows her steel when CIA boss Leon Panetta (a tart, tough James Gandolfini) asks who "the girl" is: "I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir." Her anger and agony hit a peak when she loses a colleague (a very fine Jennifer Ehle) to a suicide bomber: "I'm gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I'm gonna kill bin Laden."
Of course, that job is left to the SEALs, two of whom, played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, taste Maya's scorn for their stud posturing and "gear bullshit." In an electrifying climax, enhanced by Greig Fraser's outstanding hand-held camerawork, Bigelow tracks the stealth helicopters as they raid bin Laden's compound. We watch the action as the SEALs do, through the greenish haze of night-vision glasses. Though we know the outcome, the suspense is nerve-shattering.
Maya identifies the body, giving "the girl" the last word. Bigelow clearly relates to the woman warrior at the center of her film. Her stellar teamwork with Chastain is beautifully distilled near the end as Maya heads home in an empty cargo plane. In a close-up, which Chastain holds with haunting pain and subtlety, she mirrors Maya's moral confusion over just what her mission has accomplished, if anything, in the War on Terror. Zero Dark Thirty takes a piece out of you.