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Senior Correspondent

“ZERO DARK THIRTY”  My rating: A- (Opens wide on January 11)

157 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” opens to a black screen and real sound recordings from 9/11: Desperate people trapped in the twin towers and telephoning out, police and fire department radio chatter. It’s eerie and sad and scary, and it sets the tone for a real-life drama that is also by turns eerie, sad and scary.

Bigelow’s film is, of course, the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 2001 attacks. It’s a sort of intimate epic, one that spans a decade during which our government’s search for the terrorist figurehead flagged and would probably have been dropped if not for the driven efforts of one particular CIA analyst.

This agent, a woman who has never been identified, doggedly kept at it even when her superiors were telling her to apply her efforts elsewhere. She finally got her man.

“Zero Dark Thirty” reminds me very much of David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” Both films chronicle over many years one individual’s obsession (possibly self-destructive) with solving a crime and obtaining justice (or revenge). In both cases the search becomes almost more important than the outcome.

The woman who cracked the case— here she is called Maya— is played by Jessica Chastain with a quiet intensity and a general lack of anything like movie glamor. The film’s first 40 minutes find Maya in a foreign country— probably Pakistan— where she teams with a CIA interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke) working to break the resolve of a captured Al Qaeda member.

As determined as she is to get answers, the “enhanced” interrogation of Ammar (Reda Kateb) is almost more than the cubicle-dwelling Maya can handle. Dan— a nice enough guy when he’s not being a torturer— is a ruthless psychological manipulator. And when pure intimidation, logic, and bribes of food and water don’t bring results, there’s always physical pain— waterboarding, confinement in a box only half the size of a coffin. The idea is to convince Ammar that there will be no comfort, no relief until he cooperates.

Bigelow and Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal (they were the team behind “The Hurt Locker”) do something interesting and dangerous here— they put the audience into the same position as Maya, forced to observe while ugly things are done to a helpless human being. But like Maya we gradually find ourselves hardening. Witness enough torture, and it becomes commonplace.
“In the end everybody breaks,” Dan says. “It’s biology.”

Though Ammar finally cracks, giving the name of a shadowy individual who may be bin Laden’s personal courier, the process takes its toll on the interrogators as well. Eventually Dan announces that he’s maxed out and it’s time to go back to a Stateside desk. Perhaps he was beginning to enjoy his job.

Maya, though, slogs on. She has a reputation as an intelligence bulldog whose jaws, once clamped on a juicy piece of information, cannot be loosened. “Washington says she’s a killer,” is how her boss at the Islamabad embassy (Kyle Chandler) puts it.

The search chronicled in  “Zero Dark Thirty” operates in fits and starts. Promising pieces of information fail to pan out. There are confrontations with superiors— Maya is furious at any effort to take her off the search for the mystery courier— and brief moments of shared camaraderie with fellow spooks (particularly one played by Jennifer Ehle). But overall Maya seems to be an absolute loner.

No family. No love life. No hobbies.

She’s married to the search.

Maya narrowly escapes a suicide bombing; a second one claims the lives of several of her colleagues. One morning as she preparing to drive to the embassy in Islamabad, she is the object of an assassination attempt.

Do the terrorists now know that this red-headed woman is with the CIA?  Or was she targeted simply because she’s an American?  Either way, Maya is now on their radar, meaning she must conduct her investigation from the safety of Washington.

She believes she was spared so that she can continue the search. And woe be any boss who tries to deflect her trajectory. Eventually her efforts pay off. She is able to identify an individual who may very well be the mysterious courier. And he leads the Americans to a heavily fortified private compound just blocks from Pakistan’s national military academy.

The last 45 minutes of of “Zero Dark Thirty” (the title is a military term for 30 minutes after midnight) follows two helicopters of Navy Seals on the late-night search-and-destroy mission that brought down bin Laden.  Shot as if seen through night-vision goggles, it is a masterful sequence of suspense and action that puts the viewer in the soldiers’ boots.

Captured with handheld cameras and a general dearth of music (both choices make the film feel more immediate and documentary), "Zero" is a no-nonsense effort. Even the acting is low-keyed. While there are familiar faces— Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, Joel Edgerton— there's not a smidgen of "Hollywood" emoting, not a star turn in the bunch. Nor is there any real comic relief. Every minute of film is devoted to the mission.

The film makes no bones about the efficacy of torture in obtaining the information that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.  This assertion has been criticized by human rights groups and the Obama administration, who object to the film’s depiction of torture as ugly but necessary.

(At one point, late in the film, after George W. is out and Obama in, the spies discuss the fact that they now have to rely on old intelligence, since prisoners can no longer be coerced through enhanced techniques. Says one: “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”)

But I think arguments over the filmmakers’ intentions miss the point. “Zero Dark Thirty” poses a moral dilemma for the viewer. We’re glad bin Laden is gone, but how much guilt do we bear for the bad stuff that allowed us to get him? Where do each of us come down on the question of torture? If it were our decision, what would we do?

I’ve got no easy answer.


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