"Zero Dark Thirty" has been racking up praise and acclaim (not to mention nominations and awards) over the past few weeks, but with the majority of the country unable to see it until it (finally) moves into wide release on Jan. 11, Kathryn Bigelow's taut retelling of the hunt for Osama bin Laden has some steep expectations to meet. A feat the lengthy feature accomplishes with ease.
The 2 hour and 37 minute narrative flys by as we see CIA operative, Maya, transform from intimidated rookie to hardened elite. Just as the burden of proof and collection of seemingly nonexistent intelligence about the world's most notorious terrorist fell to Maya, so too does the success or failure of the film fall upon Jessica Chastain's performance.
The film has been criticized by some for its unflinching examination of the role of torture in the magnum opus that was cutting through al-Qaeda's network to find a man who had so long eluded the authorities. Intense as those scenes are, nothing about them is gratuitous. Bigelow lets the audience experience the situation as Maya does, her first interrogation finds her trying to conceal her horror, but soon enough we see her calling the shots confidently.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is gritty, unflinching, suspenseful and harrowing, but it never feels disingenuous. It is this as much as the performances and craft that make the film a masterwork. From the subtle, impactful opening to the unexpected revelations to the third act that brings to life the details of news articles, the film encapsulates what truly was the world's greatest manhunt.