Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.
Based on true events (although some of their information seems questionable), Zero Dark Thirty traces the search for Osama bin Laden after the tragic events of September, 11, 2001. Beginning in 2003 a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) joins the team in Pakistan, and over the years she becomes obsessed with finding a man known as "Abu Ahmed", believed to be bin Laden's personal courier and therefore the key to finding the al-Qaeda leader himself. She tracks down various leads and participates (though somewhat reluctantly) in interrogations involving torture. Her search culminates in a raid on a fortified mansion believed to be bin Laden's residence.
Kathryn Bigelow may be known for making overlong films, but damn can she pack in the tension and thrills between all the talkie bits. Zero Dark Thirty builds gradually, thoughtfully, spilling state secrets all over the place until we are brought to the payoff we all knew was coming. Maya is a serious character, single-minded in her search for reasons unknown (was she personally affected by 9/11?) but likely because this is the only mission she's ever known (she was recruited by the CIA out of high school). I liked that her gender is never touched upon, only her youth. Chastain is extremely strong in the lead, conveying Maya's intensity and passion, as well as her moral quandary regarding the use of torture- she does it because she feels she has to, but gets no pleasure out of it. And it's ugly and hard to watch when it happens, just as it should be. Bigelow is neither condoning nor condemning torture, she's just presenting it as a cold, grisly fact.
The attention to detail is actually too close, unfortunately, making the story wear thin at parts as we are shown more interrogations and false leads and side-plots than really necessary. It's not that it was boring, just that I felt several scenes were unnecessary, and it's a more noticeable flaw in a film this long. Of course Bigelow's slow, focused approach is appreciated in the climactic raid on bin Laden's house, as the tension mounts and we wait to see what we know must be coming but still somehow have doubts about. Yes at times the movie is too hurrah-hurrah-America, because this is a one-sided approach to telling this story, but maintaining focus on Maya and her remarkable drive gives it a personal, multi-layered interest that kept me engaged throughout.
Just one final note, about the cast: Daaaaaaamn this cast is crazy! Every five seconds there was a new, unexpected person, often just for a minute. Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, John Barrowman! Whaaat? And best of all Jennifer Ehle! Doing a pretty bad Southern accent but who cares! Actually there are a lot of British/Australian actors playing Americans here, which was interesting for me since I was listening for accents everywhere.
Pair This Movie With: At a few points I was reminded of Argo, probably because it's the most recent movie I've seen about a CIA mission in the Middle East, but also because both films are filled with recognizable actors in bit parts and it's like a fun game to spot them all as the movies progress.