Movie Review: 'Zero Dark Thirty' -- 4 stars

Jessica Chastain, center, Christopher Stanley, left, and Alex

Jessica Chastain, center, Christopher Stanley, left, and Alex Corbet Burcher in "Zero Dark Thirty." (Credit: Jessica Chastain, center, Christopher Stanley, left, and Alex Corbet Burcher in "Zero Dark Thirty.")

Zero Dark Thirty
4 stars
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler
Rated R
Opens Wednesday

"Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has been the subject of considerable controversy for what some critics have seen as a dishonest endorsement of waterboarding and other Bush Administration War on Terror tactics. It's been derided for one-sidedness in its insider portrait of the CIA's decade-long hunt for the terrorist leader, while being simultaneously acclaimed by multiple film critics' groups and nominated for the Golden Globes. It's headed toward the Oscars.

The movie is a Rorschach test, really, because it's essence defies simple characterization. To read it as a work of propaganda is to downplay Mark Boal's complex script and star Jessica Chastain's astonishing performance as CIA operative Maya, who keeps the candle burning for bin Laden when the agency's attention turns elsewhere. To dismiss the criticism outright is to downplay the fact that the movie does portray torture as an effective tool in the anti-terrorist fight, which of course remains a matter of great debate.

But what sets this movie apart, what makes it stand out as one of the best films of the year, has nothing to do with the controversy. Put simply, it's one of the great recent works about the investigative process, a streamlined, riveting portrait of a nuts-and-bolts inquiry over the course of a decade. Jetting from Washington to Pakistan, and Afghanistan to Eastern Europe, Bigelow and Boal ("The Hurt Locker") have condensed an entire era into 157 minutes, framing the search for bin Laden as a quest of national redemption and his discovery as a watershed moment in the post-9/11 healing process.

The filmmakers take a snapshot approach toward the subject, focusing on brutal interrogations, in-depth research and the sort of connect-the-dots methodology that the screenplay says led the CIA down the convoluted path toward finding Osama. Bigelow showed her aptitude for scenes of modern warfare in "The Hurt Locker," and here depicts a series of terror attacks with the same sort of abrupt, existential style. An extended dinner at a hotel restaurant suddenly ends with a terrible explosion. A slight deviation from normal security routines culminates in a major character's death. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere at once.

In the end, though, this movie wouldn't be what it is without the remarkable Chastain. Fast becoming one of our best actors, this generation's Meryl Streep, Chastain turns Maya into a hard-edged soul, engaging in an obsessive search for bin Laden while struggling with a recess of deep, unknown wounds. The movie supplies virtually no background information, and we rarely see Maya off the job. But when "Zero Dark Thirty" reaches May 2, 2011, and the character's years of lonely labor finally pay off, Chastain makes you feel every bit of a cauldron of emotions: joy at seeing her quest through, grief for her friends lost in the process and unease caused by an uncertain future. She is us, we are her, and the films lands deep inside your mind, never to be forgotten.

Tags: ENTERTAINMENT , Movies , Zero Dark Thirty , ROBERT LEVIN , ARTICLE , AMNY , HOLD

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