Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Jessica Chastain, James Gandolfini
Red Flags: Graphic depiction of "enhanced interrogation," war violence, language, a terror suspect's bare bottom
I didn't know the U.S. military had killed Terror Enemy #1 until I got a call from my parents that Sunday night in May of 2011.
"I know you're probably watching the news right now," Dad said.
"They got Osama Bin Laden."
Only then did I turn on the TV and see it all over the place: the celebrations, the pundits, the president making the late-night announcement on the East Coast. We know how the story ended. Zero Dark Thirty is the dramatized story of how it began, starting with a chilling audio montage of phone calls and flight radio transmissions from 9/11 and winding through nearly a decade of searching, interrogation and frustration.
The movie is not a conventional spy thriller but a story of a beleaguered CIA operative, Maya (Chastain), trying to extract information from terrorist suspects and convince her higher-ups she's onto something. Her analysis of several interrogations reveals the key to finding "UBL" is a courier who relays his messages to Al-Qaida operatives. Now if this were a fictional Hollywood espionage flick, the courier would be located within a day by a room full of people banging away at computer keyboards with giant screens that can show us high-resolution photos of just about anything, anywhere.
If only the CIA had it so easy. Maya must contend with an agency skittish about being burned by the WMD debacle in Iraq and the Abu Gharib prisoner scandal. She has guts and a gut feeling she's on the right path, even though the hunt for Bin Laden is becoming more like an episode of The First 48 as the case goes cold. Maya leans on her superiors to do something, even marking on a supervisor's window the number of days that have gone by at the suspected Bin Laden compound without somebody doing something. James Gandofini has a memorable cameo as CIA Director Leon Panetta who still sounds more like Tony Soprano than Panetta.
The movie picks up considerable zip as it follows the mission to kill UBL. We go along for the hunt as Seal Team Six raids Bin Laden's three-story compound. I already knew many of the mission's details as revealed in the book No Easy Day, but seeing them play out on screen is riveting.
I admire director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) for keeping this film from picking up a battle-of-the-sexes theme, in which Maya would be pitted against some CIA boys' club. In fact, everyone is strictly business. We do not get any extended moralizing or patriotic milking. The film doesn't even cover the national jubilation in the aftermath of the kill. Let's just say it has a clearly defined mission, and it executes it well.
One final note: I know about the congressional claims that this picture misrepresents