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Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty' offers fearless view of war on terror

| Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 8:58 p.m.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a great movie, an astonishing achievement on nearly every level.

It's also a controversial one, generating heated debate about the intentions of the filmmakers, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Their film follows the long, frustrating and, for years, fruitless search for Osama bin Laden; the film was started before he was found and killed.

The movie begins in haunting fashion, with the screen dark for a couple of minutes. We hear frantic phone calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center, a riveting reminder of the attacks that set the search for bin Laden in motion.

Bigelow immediately fast-forwards a couple of years to a CIA camp where a captured al-Qaida operative is being tortured. An agent (Jason Clarke) demands information, telling his prisoner he “owns” him. The prisoner is humiliated, waterboarded, stuffed into a tiny wooden crate, all to no avail. (Much more on this later.)

With the agent is a figure in a black ski mask. When they walk outside, the mask is removed. It is a woman, Maya (Jessica Chastain). We know nothing about her personal life; we never really do. She is single-minded of purpose: Find bin Laden. As we see her move through the film, this is unchanging. It is what she does, it is who she is. We know almost nothing else about her.

It sounds like a lack of character development, but Chastain is so good that we are riveted. She is as tough or tougher than any of the men she works with, who learn to stay out of her way. And the fact that she is a woman is an added humilation to the al-Qaida operatives she leans on for information.

Maya, who like the other operatives relies on what the U.S. government would call “enhanced” interrogation techniques, hits upon an idea that she can't shake: If bin Laden doesn't use cellphones or computers, he must rely on a courier. Find the courier, find bin Laden.

No one else buys it, and for years the trail stays cold. Leads are followed, people die. But the dogged Maya won't give up. Finally, a tip. It takes a long time to convince the government bureaucracy to buy in (James Gandolfini has a nice turn as the CIA director with no time for niceties), but eventually a raid is approved on a home in Pakistan.

This takes up the last quarter or so of a two-hour-and-37-minute movie, and it's nail-you-to-your-seat riveting. (Bigelow and Boal teamed for the Oscar-winning movie “The Hurt Locker.”) The Navy SEAL team that infiltrates the compound where bin Laden is hiding is ruthless, efficient and successful. Yet not celebratory: This was a job that took years and billions, but to these guys, it's still a job.

Not to Maya. It's her life. But to her, also, part of the business, part of the game.

At question is the role that torture played in getting the information that led to bin Laden's discovery. We see it, in graphic fashion. The tactics seems futile, and another attack occurs.

Later, the offer of food and a cigarette yields more useful results. Does this mean the lighter touch worked? Or that the prisoner was so utterly broken by earlier torture that he gave up the information out of fear?

The U.S. government is adamant that torture did not lead to bin Laden's detection, though it acknowledges that “enhanced” interrogation techniques took place. It's not clear in the film that the methods led to much of anything.

It is abundantly clear, however, that “Zero Dark Thirty” is not a glorification of torture. It is not a glorification of anything, particularly. Instead, it's a long, hard look at people going about their job, methodically, sometimes obsessively, until they get what they want.

It is intense, it's thought-provoking and it's important. All told, a brilliant movie.

Bill Goodykoontz is a film critic at the Arizona

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