It can be tough to tell a story where everyone knows the end, but the movie Zero Dark Thirty manages to turn the hunt for Osama bin Laden into an engaging procedural of an international manhunt.
A year or two after the 9/11 attacks, CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives from Washington to Pakistan to hunt down every lead in order to find and kill bin Laden.  She's paired with Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA operative who introduces her to the harsh necessities of physical and psychological torture of terrorist prisoners.  Maya soon becomes convinced that the key is finding Abu Ahmed (Tusharr Mehra), who she believes is the courier working directly with bin Laden.  There are plenty of obstacles, though, from her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) wanting her to focus more on domestic terrorism cells, to the terrorists attacks involving Maya and her team.  But she bounces around the Middle East -- mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- putting together the clues and evidence that leads to the inevitable Navy Seal raid on what is now a familiar compound...
Zero Dark Thirty has become infamous for mixing fact and fiction and coming up with the conclusion that the U.S. torture of prisoners was key in getting bin Laden -- and that's an undeniable part of the movie.  Maya's initial abhorrence at seeing the way prisoners are treated soon becomes forgotten in her quest to piece together information -- what the prisoners lie about, as well as what they reveal -- and find her courier.  Indeed, characters acknowledge that they'll be taken to task for torture but they never feel any regret or remorse over doing what they felt was necessary.    
But Zero Dark Thirty is a work of fiction, and it's a credit to the movie that it feels so much like a factual account.  Director Kathryn Bigelow (who looked at the addictive nature of war in The Hurt Locker) takes us into a place where Maya's whole world is the unrelenting pursuit of what she believes is her biggest lead.  When a higher-up asks what else she's done for the CIA and she says "Nothing.  I've done nothing else," it's not an exaggeration: We know nothing about her family, friends, or life at all before her quest.  Her whole life -- from friends to world outlook -- is the hunt; even when Dan leaves to try and life a somewhat normal life, she can't think of anything but staying behind.  This world isn't glamorous (sources betray their cause for money, while coverage of real-life terrorist attacks remind us of the continual danger) but it all leads up to the final raid -- which is somehow ironic, given that all the street planning and moral sacrificed led to a clean, high-tech assault.  Jessica Chastain is terrific as the woman of absolute determination; there are a variety of actors making brief appearances (from James Gandolfini, to Mark Duplass to John Barrowman), but for all the teamwork, deals, and betrayals, it's Maya who is at the center of everything.

Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up controversy and discussion -- which is something a good movie does -- but even those who disagree with its methods will be hard pressed not to feel gripped by its unrelenting realism and pursuit of America's most wanted villain.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

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