Director Kathryn Bigelow follows her great 2008 film "The Hurt Locker" with another film set in the "war on terror," this time tracing the history of the World Trade Center attack in 2001 to Osama bin Laden's ultimate covert assassination 10 years later. Bigelow has a documentarian's eye for detail, but the full force of a great filmmaker at the helm to keep that extreme detail interesting.
The film begins in black with recorded phone calls from people inside the World Trade Center on 9/11, telling their family or friends things like a plane just struck Tower One but they'll be OK because they're in Tower Two, with a couple voices toward the end realizing that they're about to die. The film then cuts immediately to Dan, played by Australian actor Jason Clarke - finally having his talents rewarded with a nice, large role. Dan is approaching a terrorist prisoner, Ammar (Reda Kateb), bound to ropes, with arms stretched to the ceiling and his face caked with scar tissue, blood and sweat. This is occurring inside a shed at a CIA black site, at an undisclosed location.
The interrogation begins, with Dan explaining all the things Ammar will have to do, like answer Dan's questions and stay on the mat on the floor, or else Dan will have to hurt him again.
This sets the detached mood that carries the film. There is a lot of information to be presented here - more than enough to fill a Ken Burns-length documentary, all compressed into a feature-length movie. There's no time to waste on imprinting a sympathetic or enthusiastic bias to the atrocities of torture (waterboarding here is presented in an unstylized and routine manner), or any of the other methods intelligence agents have to use to "protect the homeland." And it's all for the better.
With no attempts at glorifying or condemning the entire process, the film is left as a nearly perfect detective story - not constrained to a single city or country or crime scene and with future atrocities at stake the entire time.
Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, was there at the opening interrogation scene. Chastain has recently been seen mainly in surreal and underused form in "The Tree of Life," but also stars in the horror film "Mama" in theaters now. Maya had arrived, as Dan described, just off a flight and dressed in her best suit for her first interrogation - and had to deal with that one.
"They're not all this intense," Dan said, but for the most part he seems wrong. At one point, when they've finally caught a high-level al Qaeda member they had been seeking for years, Dan puts the prisoner in a black site cell completely surrounded with barbed wire and tells him, "I'm bad news, I'm not your friend I'm here to break you."
That's exactly the problem many have with the film. Audience members have trouble putting their moral qualms with abuse and torture aside, despite the seeming effectiveness those "enhanced interrogation techniques" produce. The issue of torture is addressed throughout in the changing politics unfolding in Washington.
A "60 Minutes" interview with at-that-time-president-elect Barack Obama, where he speaks of ending those methods when he is inaugurated, is seen in the background of one scene with Maya and other intelligence officers. At least one later complains that they lost the ability to gain information directly from people "when we lost the detainee program."
It's not all office developments or disturbing interrogations, though. All of that information is
used in field work, from things as banal as checking out pay-phone banks looking for a courier with a complex communication method, to a sting operation in Pakistan. The best set piece of all, though, is when the pace slows down to near real-time at the end, when Navy SEALS conduct the raid on the fortress of Abbottabad to bring bin Laden down. This is portrayed with unnerving realism and violence - mistakes and all - that had several audience members around me gasping.
The "slowing down" part is key here, because much of the film is paced perfectly to be a taut thriller, exciting a contemporary audience who will be at least vaguely familiar with all this recent history. But it may not hold up as well years from now, when the only parts of this hunt for Osama that will be remembered are 9/11 and the end result.
Terrorist, political, and geographical names are thrown about with the rapid-fire efficiency of jargon used by experts. Sometimes, even as a modern person who watched all these events on screen actually unfold on the news, it was too easy to get lost.
Maya is the only passionate center to the entire film, and that framework helps us to focus. Her passion is not on friends or life or anything that may have mucked up the focus of this delicate, precise film. The only thing she wants is "to ice everyone involved in this op," she said after a particularly terrible thing happens, "and kill Osama bin Laden."
It's a fury and a sense of vengeance that play the only emotional underpinnings to the movie - which is more than appropriate considering those factors seemed to be the flow of America as this all went down.
Whether the film will get rewarded with an Oscar or two come that time has yet to be seen, but the controversy surrounding the film is unprecedented. What's more is that the controversy isn't about supposed misinformation or anything like that, but instead because it refuses to take an emotional stake and, in the end, feels almost too startlingly real.
Movie: Zero Dark Thirty; Director: Kathryn Bigelow; Studio: Annapurna Pictures / Columbia Pictures; Rated R; My finding: Four out of five stars.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews will appear periodically in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)