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Columbia Pictures

Notes on a manhunt

Profile image for By Boo Allen / Film Critic
By Boo Allen / Film Critic

No stone unturned as film traces U.S. pursuit of bin Laden

Everyone knows how Zero Dark Thirty ends. It’s hard to imagine that many Americans, or many people anywhere, do not know that Osama bin Laden is dead.

Regardless, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow executes a masterly job of presenting the behind-the-scenes operation of what led up to bin Laden’s disposal in the celebrated military maneuver in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Zero Dark Thirty takes itself so seriously, it sometimes bogs down in minutiae — does it add anything, and do we really need to see a sheik shopping for a Lamborghini? The dogged efforts that led to the renowned execution are often bogged down with repetitious bureaucratic squabblings, although the film mostly steers clear of any doctrinal political entanglements.

Bigelow works from Mark Boal’s screenplay, a work put into production remarkably fast for an industry that is often quick to capitalize yet slow to act. The story follows the CIA career of Maya (Jessica Chastain), who joins the agency not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and is assigned to its bin Laden unit. As her reward, she travels to such exotic garden locales as Pakistan and almost always to so-called “black spots,” places where prisoners are beaten and tortured for information.

Early parts of the film repeat themselves and even become gratuitous as they linger on the gory details of the abuses that blemished the pursuit of America’s most wanted Saudi dissident. Maya recoils at the cruelty, but eventually becomes hardened to her colleagues’ behavior when her own tracking efforts keep hitting dead ends.

But director Bigelow stays with Maya. The agent gradually uncovers slips of information that lead to someone who leads to someone else — who just might lead to bin Laden. During it all, friends and colleagues die in suicide bombings, shootouts and other tragic, unrecognized deaths.

Bigelow deftly and smoothly executes the movie’s money shots, the culminating, near-silent scenes in which the soldiers successfully carry out their assignments. Everyone may know the ending to Zero Dark Thirty, but the film maintains a strong dramatic pull.

Befitting its obvious prestige, Zero Dark Thirty has drawn an impressive cast of quality character actors in supporting roles, such as Jennifer Ehle as sharp-eyed CIA agent Jessica, Mark Strong as a strong-willed agency overseer, James Gandolfini as the CIA director, and Kyle Chandler as Pakistan bureau chief Joseph Bradley.



Zero Dark Thirty


Rated R, 157 minutes.

Opens Friday.