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Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden -- carried by Jessica Chastain as an obsessed CIA officer -- is brutal, tense and powerful.

Whether you call it well-informed speculative history, docudrama re-creation or stripped-down suspense filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty matches form and content to pretty terrific ends. A long-arc account of the search for Osama bin Laden seen from the perspective of an almost insanely focused female CIA officer who never gives up the hunt until the prey ends up in a body bag, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's heavily researched successor to Oscar winner The Hurt Locker will be tough for some viewers to take, not only for its early scenes of torture but because of its denial of conventional emotionalism and non-gung ho approach to cathartic revenge-taking. Films touching on 9/11, including United 93, World Trade Center and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, have proved commercially toxic, and while this one has a "happy" ending, its rigorous, unsparing approach will inspire more enthusiasm among the hardcore film crowd than with the wider public.

Even at 2-1/2 hours, Zero Dark Thirty is so pared to essentials that even politics are eliminated; there's essentially no Bush or Cheney, no Iraq War, no Obama announcing the success of the 2011 raid. Similarly absent is any personal life for the young, single-minded heroine Maya (Jessica Chastain); when it's suggested at one point that she might want to have a fling, she colorfully replies that she's not a girl who does that sort of thing. The film does question whether she gives up some of her humanity to so selflessly dedicate herself but seems to answer that this is what represents the essence of life; everything else is preparation and waiting.

Its military-jargon title referring to a state of darkness as well as to the time of 12:30 a.m., Zero Dark Thirty opens with 90 seconds or so of black screen accompanied by a soundtrack collage of emergency phone calls from people trapped in the twin towers; no need for the familiar visuals here. Cut to two years later, when a captured nephew of bin Laden undergoes a series of brutal CIA interrogations that involve beatings, waterboarding, being bound by a dog collar and rope and getting locked in a small wooden box. It's not the most inviting way to usher a viewer into a movie.

Then again, the hunt for bin Laden was no picnic, either. For a while, as the film hopscotches through the years, Boal's script appears to be structured journalistically around a series of greatest terrorist hits, so to speak. Connecting the dots, however, is the dogged presence of Maya, who barely flinches when she first witnesses torture, is described as "a killer" by a colleague and, after a close call, allows that, "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job." Boal, who dug as deeply into the classified aspects of the case as possible but seems to have been more committed to protecting the identities of those involved than even some participants have been, has said that there really is a "Maya," though details have been fudged to prevent identification.

Given no backstory, links to the world outside the CIA or any interest in small talk or other subjects, Maya occasionally has a drink to unwind but otherwise seems entirely incapable of shutting down her laserlike focus. Most of the time, she is the only female in the room, and she knows when to hold her tongue, but she also finds her moments to speak out to superiors when her contributions are being ignored.

Much as she did with the equally tightly wound protagonist of Hurt Locker, Bigelow sends Maya through a minefield, this time consisting of bureaucratic trip wires and potentially fatal traps. The director also successfully creates a double-clad environment that is eerie and threatening, that of the supposedly protected enclaves of the CIA that exist within the larger context of the Muslim world. From early on, Maya seizes on the idea that the way to track down bin Laden is to identify and follow his couriers.

As we know, she's right, but it takes years for the tactic to pay off. Even once she and her cohorts track down the long-elusive Abu Ahmad, following his vehicle through the chaotic streets of Rawalpindi is a nightmare. But after a succession of roadblocks, setbacks and dead ends, Maya finally convinces herself that bin Laden is holed up in the house in Abbottabad, whereupon her convictions ascend the ladder of command to the point where the CIA director (James Gandolfini) braces himself to enter the Oval Office and recommend a stealth raid to the president.

Bigelow and Boal play a long game, moving from the brutal opening through impressively detailed but not always compelling vignettes of the CIA at work to interludes in which Maya's ferocious dedication begins to possibly pay dividends and finally to the climactic 40 minutes, which lay out with extraordinary detail and precision the almost improbably successful operation that begins at Area 51 in Nevada and ends with Maya identifying the body that's brought back.

In between is an exceptionally riveting sequence done with no sense of rah-rah patriotic fervor but rather tremendous appreciation for the nervy way top professionals carry off a very risky job; Howard Hawks would have been impressed. Slipping low through mountain passes in darkness from Afghanistan to Pakistan with rotor noise muffled by special equipment, the two choppers drop off their Navy SEALs, one then crashes in the yard, but remarkably, the noise seems not to arouse any locals just yet.

The men, wearing helmets with night-vision lenses, proceed into the sealed-up house, breaking down doors and exploding locks. Instead of rushing the place, as per usual cinematic practice, they move cautiously, room by room, killing the messenger, among others, and encountering several women and many children as they go. The tall man remains elusive. Still, with each minute, the danger of exposure increases -- locals from the neighborhood are beginning to head toward the house -- and they still haven't found their prize. Until, finally, they do.

Because of the black-and-green videolike quality of the night-vision imagery, these momentous events possess the pictorial quality of low-budget Blair Witch Project/Paranormal Activity thrillers, which merely contributes further to their weirdness. And because of the deliberate pace at which the men make their way through the house, an unsettling airlessness sets in, a feeling of being suspended in time that's unlike any equivalent climactic action sequence that comes to mind.

But quite apart from its historical significance, at least the scene provides a welcome catharsis. The filmmakers initially embarked on this project before the bin Laden raid took place, which obviously would have resulted in an entirely different sort of film, dramatically and philosophically; without a resolution, it could hardly have helped from being an existential tale of quite substantial dimensions.

As it has emerged, Zero Dark Thirty could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal, as one keenly feels the drive of the filmmaker channeled through the intensity of Maya's character. The film's power steadily builds over its long course, to a point that is terrifically imposing and unshakable.

Chastain carries the film in a way she never has been asked to do before. Denied the opportunity to provide psychological and emotional details for Maya, she nonetheless creates a character that proves indelible and deeply felt. The entire cast works in a realistic vein to fine effect.

Similarly, all the technical contributions are put at the service of full verisimilitude. Locations in Jordan and India fill in beautifully for Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Opens: Wednesday, Dec. 19 (Sony)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rated
R, 157 minutes