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Review: "Zero Dark Thirty" is a bullseye for Bigelow

Jessica Chastain has received Academy attention for her portrayal of Maya, a CIA agent who is relentless in her search of the location of Bin Laden. Photo by Columbia Pictures.

We all know the story — the helicopters flying in the dead of night; the white compound, now nearly as recognizable as the Statue of Liberty to many Americans. Some even remember the date: the early morning of May 2, 2011. The man-hunt and assassination of Osama bin Laden is infamous, emotionally charged and ambitious (at best) to take on as a director. But that didn’t stop Kathryn Bigelow.

After securing best director and best picture in the 201o Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker (2010), Bigelow is at it again with her latest project, “Zero Dark Thirty”, which chronicles the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attack. However, it’s not the familiar story many of us know.

The film follows the career of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a Central Intelligence Agency officer who dedicates her life to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Bigelow succeeds in shining a light on one of the more obscure professional careers — intelligence, the unsung heros of the war on terror. But the film also has a darker and much more controversial side to it in the way it portrays enhanced interrogation techniques.

Bigelow sets the tone from the opening of the film with a dark screen, as the theater fills with the sounds of the 9/11, but it doesn’t stop there. We are first introduced to Maya as she emerges from an interrogation mask, red hair flowing behind her. At this undisclosed CIA “black site,” a prisoner is tortured for the emails of members of the Saudi group through grim methods such as waterboarding and confinement in a small box. Working with a fellow officer Dan (Jason Clarke), they manage to trick the prisoner into revealing the name of an old acquaintance, Abu Ahmed, who is working as a personal courier for bin Laden.

Maya follows this lead tirelessly over the next years, extracting pieces of information from detainee tapes, surviving bombings and attempted assassinations, relentlessly pursuing her goal in a brilliant performance by Chastain. The location of this courier eventually leads to a white compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The rest is history.

Bigelow blends journalism and drama into a captivating thriller. While the torture issue has been the main focus of controversy in the film, it is not the main takeaway. The movie progresses systematically with a certain distance kept between the audience and the characters. The real star of this movie is the plot. Even so, Chastain’s performance is Oscar-worthy and sure to captivate many in what is just short of a masterpiece by Bigelow.

Chastain won a  Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress — Film and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress — Drama Film. Zero Dark Thirty is nominated for five academy awards, including best picture and best actress (Chastain).

Zero Dark Thirty
2 hours 37 minutes
Rated R for strong violence including brutal violent images, and for language
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
With Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle and Harold Perrineau
Opinion: While it centers on an emotional topic and may spark controversy, “Zero Dark Thirty”  is a masterful blend of journalism and drama about the suspenseful hunt for Osama Bin Laden. 8/10

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Jack Shapiro, Author
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