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Movie Review: 'Zero Dark Thirty'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Arguments will ensue, and why not? Here's a movie worth arguing about.

The "do-the-ends-justify-the-means?" torture controversy that will accompany the opening of Zero Dark Thirty neither amplifies nor diminishes the unmistakable quality of this first-rate docudrama, a work of tense cinematic journalism without a particular political agenda.

Neither do the accusations about making political hay that have been leveled across the aisle by members of both political parties during production of the film with regard to such items as access to classified information, the choice of a before- or after-the-election opening date, or the depiction or lack thereof of President Obama in the finished product.

(3½ stars out of 4)

Zero Dark Thirty (the title, according to director Kathryn Bigelow, is the military term for a half-hour after midnight, the time of the eventual raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan) is an obsessive procedural chronicle of the decade-long war-on-terror hunt by intrepid members of the intelligence community for 9/11-orchestrating terrorist and al-Qaeda leader bin Laden.

Initially a project about the complex and unsuccessful pursuit of bin Laden, the film's focus and Seal Team 6-raid climax changed as soon as the news broke in 2011 that he had been killed.

Jessica Chastain plays a driven CIA analyst, a fictional character based on a real person, who spends years involved in grueling investigative work as she tries to ascertain the whereabouts of the world's most wanted and most maddeningly elusive man.

Director and co-producer Bigelow (Point Break, Blue Steel, The Weight of Water, K-19: The Widowmaker), the Oscar-winning director of 2009's The Hurt Locker, knows that she needn't melodramatize material that is so inherently urgent.

And once again, as they did in The Hurt Locker, she and screenwriter Mark Boal, who also won an Oscar for his script, once again concentrate on the folks doing the actual work, not those making the political decisions.

Evidence of their painstaking research turns up in the parade of dead ends, red herrings, breakthroughs, blind alleys, setbacks, triumphs, tragedies, and moments of inspiration along the way.

And while the plot is necessarily complicated, it's not really confusing. Facts may escape you, but the through line does not sag as a result.

This R-rated thriller, originally titled "For God and Country," is raw but accessible; fosters considerable suspense, especially surprising and impressive when you consider that we know the outcome in advance; and seems lean and straightforward despite its over-2½-hour running time.

The always watchable Chastain turns in another adroit performance in her first bona fide lead role as the fragile-looking but steely and resolute Maya, also functioning as a female CIA agent and a walking metaphor for Bigelow, a woman film director succeeding masterfully in what has always been a man's game -– and specializing in particularly "masculine" movies at that.

So we'll hunt for 3½ stars out of 4 for a superbly crafted, riveting real-life detective thriller on a mammoth scale. Regardless of where you stand on the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" like waterboarding, Zero Dark Thirty will compel, impress, inform, and satisfy.

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