Osama bin Laden meets his match in Zero Dark Thirty, a detailed and mesmerizing account of the 10-year manhunt for the al Qaeda leader. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, in their follow-up to 2008's Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker, have managed to outdo themselves with one of the best - if not the best - movie of the year.
Zero Dark Thirty takes an unflinching and procedural approach to the CIA mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden. The movie begins with sound bites from September 11, 2011, the 911 calls emoting the fear and panic that were inflicted upon the victims of the World Trade Center attack. It then immediately flashes forward two years to a CIA black site, where agents known only as Dan (Jason Clarke) and Maya (Jessica Chastain) interrogate and torture an alleged terrorist.
Bigelow and Boal spent years researching the film and developing contacts to give them unprecedented (and controversial) access to information about the investigation and people involved. The filmmakers were about to go into production on a movie about the bin Laden search in Tora Bora when the al Qaeda mastermind was killed; they scrapped their original script upon the announcement of his death and developed what is now Zero Dark Thirty.
The first thirty minutes of the movie are the toughest to sit through - the opening scenes are gripping but unrelenting in their depiction of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other torture tactics. Based on the filmmakers' research and attention to detail, there's little doubt that these scenes are fairly accurate.
From there, the movie focuses on Maya and her obsessive mission to find a man who she believes is one of bin Laden's most trusted couriers, despite lingering doubt about his importance, let alone his existence. He would eventually be the person who leads them to bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty is superbly written and directed. As good as The Hurt Locker is, it feels inconsequential when compared to this movie. The movie looks great, and Bigelow and Boal's "no bullshit" storytelling approach grabs hold within the first minute and never lets go.
Even more impressive is the climax, a long, detailed and shockingly suspenseful reenactment of the Seal Team Six mission to kill bin Laden. You know how it's going to end, but it doesn't matter. It's hard to call Zero Dark Thirty an action-thriller, but the film's climax is one of the most thrilling action scenes of the year.
The performances are also excellent. Jessica Chastain delivers one of the strongest performances of the years, and is currently a frontrunner for an Oscar. While she has some hearty competition, there is no denying the talent she puts on display in the movie. Clarke also is terrific in a supporting role.
Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent movie and one of the best movies of the year. It's hard to call the movie "entertaining" due to its subject matter, but it is a legitimately gripping thriller that deserves to be seen.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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