Chances are that you’ve read or watched several news reports about the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011. Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, not only shows us what might have actually happened that night, but also tells the complex and riveting tale of the almost decade-long hunt for bin Laden following the attacks of 9/11.

Shooting the film with a documentary-like urgency, Bigelow goes for a tone that’s real and believable. Along with screenwriter Mark Boal, she navigates a landscape far tougher than their Oscar-winning last film The Hurt Locker.

Quickly and powerfully dealing with the events of 9/11 in a chilling opening scene, Zero Dark Thirty cuts directly to the years of interrogations, torture sessions, devastating setbacks, false leads, and the losses of many a life that led to the discovery of bin Laden’s whereabouts and his eventual killing.

The film became embroiled in controversy over its scenes of torture, with Bigelow and Boal being accused of fabricating the truth by suggesting that torture was in fact used to obtain crucial information that led to the discovery of bin Laden. The makers in turn have insisted that the events of the film are based on firsthand accounts. Look beyond the controversy however, and one thing is clear: dramatically speaking, Bigelow and Boal give us a film that never rings untrue.

Weighing in at two hours and forty minutes, the film’s labyrinthine quest for the al Qaida leader is seen through the eyes of Maya, a doggedly determined CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain, who never loses sight of her goal even when all leads go cold. One of the few women in a predominantly masculine world, Maya goes from circumspect to obsessive, and Chastain delivers a terrific performance down to her final moment on screen, alone on a plane. Bigelow surrounds her protagonist with a solid supporting cast including Jason Clarke as a ruthless interrogation expert and James Gandolfini as the director of the CIA.

Zero Dark Thirty kicks into action-movie mode in its final act when those twin stealth helicopters swoop in on the Abbottabad compound and the Navy SEALs assigned the mission work their way methodically from floor to floor and room to room. Seen mostly through the green glow of night-vision goggles, this is the film’s most thrilling portion even though you already know the outcome.

The film, whose title means thirty minutes past midnight, is masterfully directed by a filmmaker who refuses to take any political stance, but nevertheless offers her viewers endless material to debate. I’m going with four out of five for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. This is no jingoistic flag-waving revenge saga, but a thought-provoking and realistic account of the dark side of the war on terror. Don’t miss it!

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