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Review: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ segues from taut thriller to action-film perfection

Of all the awards-season releases, Zero Dark Thirty has been the subject of the most controversy. Director Kathryn Bigelow couldn’t have picked a more pressure-filled follow-up to The Hurt Locker. But after garnering an Oscar for her handling of that Iraq War film, she had few peers who could receive the kind of government and military cooperation it would take to make a movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Working with Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, she had two main challenges: Condense a decade-long investigation into a film, and try to be as faithful in depicting the course of events as possible.

That meant torture would enter the picture, and it comes as quickly as Jessica Chastain’s Maya — a fictionalized character based on a real female CIA operative — arrives at a prison in Pakistan. Maya does not personally approve of what she sees, but like interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke), she puts duty before sentiment. The threat of waterboarding causes a prisoner to give up the name “Ahmed of Kuwait,” a name that will become a factor much later, after substantial intelligence gathering, bribery, explosions and other intrigues.

The first half is intense, portraying the people who work for the CIA and the frustration they felt as bin Laden remained free year after year. Mark Strong’s glowering presence is especially effective as his agency boss chastises his people into action. “Maya” may not have been singularly responsible for finding bin Laden, but her dogged pursuit is certainly meant to represent the people whose unrelenting efforts led to a Navy SEAL team sweeping into his Abbottabad compound.

The Bigelow-Boal partnership is perfectly balanced, with former journalist Boal’s formidable research skills and attention to detail allowing Bigelow to fully focus on interpreting the narrative. Her lyrical vision sets a brisk pace for the film’s taut first half, then embeds the audience with the SEALs, led by Joel Edgerton. The SEALs’ easy confidence as the mission hour approaches contrasts with the operatives’ tense frustration, but it’s a helpful introduction to the attitudes that allowed them to succeed on-site. Bigelow’s previous experience with military subject material pays off here with action-scene pacing perfection.

An argument can be made that the film suggests the threat of waterboarding may be enough to cause a prisoner to give up accurate information. This isn’t to say that waterboarding is not torture, or immoral, or that the filmmakers endorsed it. Bigelow avoids making a statement on torture by depicting it as honestly as possible, and making the interrogators more human, conflicted characters than black-ops caricatures. Zero Dark Thirty transcends the torture debates by enabling viewers to either apply filters of their own personal prejudice or see it through a clear lens.

ZERO DARK THIRTY Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, rated R, 157 mins