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Zero Dark Thirty' on target

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Film recounts the hunt for Osama Bin Laden

It's a sign of a gifted filmmaker when a director can find a way to tell a story whose ending is already known and still instill it with urgency and intensity. It was actually a good year for those sorts of films 'Argo' and 'Lincoln' both told tales whose conclusions we already knew.

However, those stories both exist very much in the past, in worlds that are different than the one in which we currently live. That isn't the case with 'Zero Dark Thirty,' the latest film from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. This film is drawn from the past, yes, but from the very recent past a past that is close enough to burn bright in the memory of everyone who sees the film.

It's about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

'Zero Dark Thirty' focuses on a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain, 'Lawless'), a woman who is sent to the Middle East in order to aid in the hunt for Bin Laden. The film opens on 9/11, then proceeds to take a number of leaps through time, illustrating the American quest to find their great enemy. As time passes, we meet an assortment of players in the hunt there's agency interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke, 'Lawless'), Maya's fellow analysts Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, 'Contagion') and Jack (Harold Perrineau, 'Sunset Stories'), station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler, 'Argo') and many others, all devoted to the search - a search whose culmination we all remember.

Plot synopsis doesn't do 'Zero Dark Thirty' any justice. The film is structured as a procedural; the basic skeleton is something we've all seen before. What Bigelow does, along with screenwriter Mark Boal (with whom she teamed on 'The Hurt Locker') is create an edge-of-your-seat intensity that informs the entire film. Whether we're watching a brutally graphic interrogation, an interoffice power play or a high-end military operation, that intensity never disappears.

You might think a film based on such a recent event would sacrifice some of that urgency after all, this is a movie about something that, in the grand scheme of things, just happened but if anything, the opposite is true. The freshness of those memories serves to raise the stakes; our feelings about these events are still very much present. That sense of presence along with Bigelow's deft direction and Boal's dynamite script elicits a very real investment from an audience.

Jessica Chastain has been receiving a lot of awards buzz for her performance, but I have to admit feeling a little underwhelmed by her performance. Don't get me wrong she's quite good but it seems like she might be riding the strength of the script toward these accolades. She was strong, but not as strong as I anticipated. The supporting cast is exceptional Clarke and Chandler in particular take outstanding turns. We even get all-too-brief quality performances from guys like James Gandolfini ('Killing Them Softly') as the CIA director and Joel Edgerton ('The Odd Life of Timothy Green') and Chris Pratt ('The Five Year Engagement') as Navy SEALs.

Historical veracity is difficult to establish with a film like this one. While Bigelow and Boal have used first-hand accounts, there is no doubt that certain liberties were likely taken in the interest of storytelling. And there is of course the considerable Washington ire aimed at the film with regards to its depictions of interrogation techniques and detainee torture. But there's an undeniable feeling of general truth here, regardless of the specifics; that's really what a film like this needs to convey.

'Zero Dark Thirty' offers up an interpretation of one of the most significant events in recent American history. While one might argue the finer points, there is no denying that it is an exceptional film executed by some of the most talented people working in Hollywood today. It is easily one of the best films of the year one that warrants the conversations that it will inevitably spark.

5 out of 5


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