Title: Zero Dark Thirty

Columbia Pictures

Director: Kathryn Bigelow.

Screenwriter: Mark Boal

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramirez, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Scott Adkins, Taylor Kinney, Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Mark Duplass

Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/27/12 Opens: December 19, 2012

America has had a lot to be distressed and depressed about during the last decade or so—9/11, recessions, unemployment, the Republican party’s reflexive actions to block everything proposed by President Obama. But one victory stands out above all: the success of the current administration in killing the most hated and feared enemy in ages. Osama Bin Laden’s assassination is a credit to our president. He’s the commander in chief, the man who had to approve the mission of the Seals, and he’d be in the deep muddy if the story got out that Bin Laden was nowhere to be found in Abbattabad, or even worse, that the Seals sent on the dangerous mission were killed. Of course the Seals themselves are to be commended. But one person has not received the kudos she deserves, and it is this person—a woman (that’s important)—whose single-minded research and obsession with finding and killing the real great Satan, resulted in the success of the mission.

Kathryn Bigelow, whose “The Hurt Locker” focused on an elite bomb squad who in the midst of the chaos of war had to ply their dangerous trade, deserved the accolades she received for the tension she provided the audience and for sheer entertainment value. By comparison, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which takes on the ten-year deliberations that led to the assassination of Bin Laden, deliberately rejects the gung-ho attitude of Bigelow’s previous work and instead ramps up the concept that a woman, whose counsel is often ignored by the men in the CIA strictly because of the gender of the agent, is the person most responsible for the mission’s success. Had she been unable to convince the CIA director that the chances were 95% that Bin Laden was holed up in a particular location a quarter-mile from a Pakistani military unit, the president would not have approved the gamble.

Jessica Chastain, a 35-year-old actress known for stellar performances in side roles for movies like “The Help” and the oblique “Tree of Life,” anchors the story as Maya, a woman who in a sense is the opposite of an Israeli Sabra in that Maya is soft on the outside and rock-hard within. When she witnesses a long session of torture in an opening round of Bigelow’s movie, which was scripted by Mark Boal who actually witnessed the agent’s work, she winces and looks away as Dan (Jason Clarke) intimidates a suspected Al Queda money-handler (Reda Kateb) who resists giving information. Dan uses waterboarding, strips the man from the waist down (particularly humiliating in front of a woman), and walks him around the room with a dog collar. (A later TV conference shows President Obama’s stating that America does not use torture.) The prisoner appeals to Maya’s gender to help him get away from the “animal” torturing him, and for a while we think she will use her influence in just that way. She counsels him to speak truthfully and thereby save himself. When Maya sees her best friend in the CIA (Jennifer Ehle) blown up by a terrorist, she is most determined than ever to fulfill her mission: “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill Bin Laden.”

Like “No Easy Day,” the best-selling book about the assassination, the real action in Bin Laden’s compound is held back until the final forty minutes, the rest of the time taken in seemingly endless deliberations by the higher-ups in the CIA, a few explosions and rapid gunfire that almost kills Maya, and a touristic look at the crowds in Pakistan going about their business, buying and selling food and items in the bazaar. (Greig Fraser’s filming takes place in Jordan and India with a scene in London depicting the blowing up of a bus.)

If virtually non-stop action is what you crave, you’d do well to check out the Bourne series or the latest from 007 and not this movie. Still those final forty minutes ratchets up the tension, particularly given the “All the President’s Men” treatment of the affair for most of the back-story. Watch how the Seals, each wearing four night-lenses over his eyes and presumably a TV camera in his helmet to allow President Obama and other higher-ups back in Washington to witness the campaign, cut across the Afghan border into Pakistan unseen by elements of the Pakistan military. Though we now know the outcome of the operation, the frissons come thick and fast as one chopper loses power and sinks to the ground while the other, supposedly with a “silencer” attached to the rotary blades but making plenty of noise, lands in front of the compound.

As the Seals dynamite their way past one door after another—women screaming (some getting shot) and men seeming to put up no resistance—we wonder just how much the audience will be shown at the climactic moment. Will we see an actor playing Bin Laden receiving a bullet in the head? Will we watch his body cleansed, given Islamic ceremonies, and dropped into the water?

Ultimately the project stands out in its glorification of the woman who brought about the demise of our number one enemy, though her actual identity is more of a secret than that of the author of “No Easy Day” whose name did emerge soon enough despite his desire for anonymity. Is she a real woman, or a composite? Its other principal virtue is the waiving of gung-ho rites–something that given the respectable budget that the studio must have had would have been tempting—in favor of overturning the usual narrative expectations. Jessica Chastain is superb.

Rated R. 157 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+

Acting – B+

Technical – B+

Overall – B+

Zero Dark Thirty Movie Review

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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