If you're looking for a blow-by-blow account of the whos and hows of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty" is not the movie for you.
Instead, the film is a wrenching portrayal of points along the journey, based on firsthand accounts, that manages to land several punches to the gut despite being stripped of many Hollywood conventions.
After a powerful opening sequence of phone calls made on Sept. 11, 2001 (I couldn't find whether they were real or not), the film dives straight into the process of gathering information to fight al-Qaida and track down its leader. Jessica Chastain ("The Help") plays Maya, a young CIA operative who is initially as horrified as some audience members likely will be at the brutal tactics fellow agent Dan (Jason Clarke, "The Chicago Code") uses to obtain that intelligence. The film follows Maya over the years as she doggedly pursues bin Laden, culminating in the famous raid by Navy SEAL Team Six.
Chastain is the acting centerpiece, but she's surrounded by other strong performers, including Jennifer Ehle ("A Gifted Man"), Mark Strong ("Sherlock Holmes"), Edgar Ramirez ("Wrath of the Titans") and James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos"). A bit out of place was Christopher Pratt, best known as the goofy Andy on "Parks and Recreation." I've seen him play somewhat serious before in "Moneyball," but here it just feels like Andy as a Navy SEAL.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal - whose last collaboration, "The Hurt Locker," earned Oscars for both and a Best Picture statue - choose to show rather than tell their audience what's happening. This spares viewers clunky exposition, but at times makes the film a little hard to follow.
That applies to the characters as well. Honestly, I couldn't have told you the names of some key players even as the movie was going on. There's little to no backstory or exposition to flesh them out the way you'd expect. That makes sense given that many of the people portrayed on screen are based on real individuals whose identities are classified. Delving into their lives too much would not have been possible and filling in perceived gaps with fiction would have undermined the realism the film wants to portray (how realistic it actually is has been and will continue to be debated).
"Zero Dark Thirty"
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini.
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow.
Rated: R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
We're told very little about who Maya was before joining the CIA or why she does what she does. But what drives her is never left to the imagination. You can see and feel her and other characters' frustrations, fears, exuberance and anguish.
That empathy also applies to a victim of brutal interrogation techniques. One scene in which a detainee pitifully clutches the meager juice drink and food his interrogator offers him should serve to torpedo any claims the film is glorifying torture.
Nevertheless, the film implies these practices were important in the ultimate discovery of bin Laden, something that's drawn criticism from senators in Washington. I still wouldn't call it an endorsement of torture, and, while the accuracy of the depiction should certainly be open for discussion, ignoring the topic completely would not make sense.
Underlying the film is a debate about what lines it's justifiable to cross to combat a ruthless enemy with no regard for those lines. I took no pleasure in seeing suspected terrorists tortured or even the final raid on bin Laden's compound, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't understand the motivations of those involved.