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The identities of the tight knit group of CIA agents and military personnel responsible for completing the mission that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden are known to very few. Yet somehow director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal managed to meet with some unnamed key people, including one woman who was integral in tracking down the most wanted man on the planet.
The script supplies this female with the name Maya (played by Jessica Chastain). She begins her decade-long hunt for bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks when she is sent to the Middle East to assist agents already on the hunt for any shred of information. Our first introduction to Maya is at a CIA “black site” where she witnesses “enhanced interrogation” first hand when a captured terrorist financier (Reda Kateb) is water boarded (an infamous torture technique) by a senior agent named Dan (Jason Clarke). It appears that Maya is somewhat bothered by this at first, but she quickly comes up to the expectations of the agency when the prisoner, naked below the waist after defecating (rear nudity is seen), begs her for help. Her reply: “You can help yourself by being truthful.”
And so begins Maya’s quest. With each passing year her involvement becomes deeper, her determination looks increasingly like obsession, and her demeanor gets more hardened. Like a locomotive on a straight track cutting across the desert, we follow this agent through the major terrorist events of the decade. A double-decker bus explodes in London in 2005. The Marriot Hotel in Islamabad Pakistan craters when a huge explosive is detonated in 2008. Finally a bomb goes off inside a CIA base after agents instruct the guards to stand down and let a car carrying a man, whom they thought was a trusted informant, inside.
It appears all their efforts are in vain until Maya pours over some old files and notices a lead everyone thought was dead. A few contacts later, plus a phone number bought with a new Lamborghini, and the aggressive agent is convinced she has found the bin Laden residence in a small city in Pakistan.
In spite of its long running time, this movie moves along quickly and leaves little time for breathing. It’s also not a movie for those who would prefer not to view scenes of torture, bomb blasts that results in bloodied bodies, as well as a scene of military personnel on a secret mission entering a home and shooting key individuals while children look on in horror. You can expect dozens of sexual expletives and a variety of other profanities too.
Perhaps the biggest question this movie raises is how accurate is this story? In an interview with CBS News, director Kathryn Bigelow claims she has “first hand” sources on many of the movie’s details, but adds she never requested nor was aware that she received classified information. The additional fact that members of the American Congress are calling for investigations into whether restricted data was shared with the filmmakers implies that what we see is relatively accurate. (This political scuffle will also surely be a marketing coup for the movie’s promotion.)
A product of a culture that can’t wait to turn yesterday’s news into today’s cinematic spectacle, Zero Dark Thirty is a well-crafted production that has garnered attention from parties ranging from government oversight boards to Hollywood awards circles. Possibly suitable only for the oldest and most mature teens and adult audiences, it captures a pivotal moment in a story that only the shortsighted would say is over.
Note: Zero Dark Thirty ( which means 30 minutes after midnight in military jargon) opened in limited release on December 19, 2012. The film opens in a wide release on January 11, 2013.
Zero Dark Thirty is rated R: for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Chris Pratt, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke
Studio: 2012 Sony Pictures
Website: Official site for Zero Dark Thirty.