Oscar catch-up: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

zero-dark-thirty

In which I try to see a few Oscar nominated movies before the Oscars roll around.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” has picked up a lot of political baggage, much of it centered around the film’s early scenes of CIA operatives using waterboarding and other means of torture to try to extract knowledge of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden from low-to-mid-level al Qaeda operatives.

The scenes are pretty harrowing and few moviegoers will go away without an opinion of the use of torture. Suffice it to say the scenes also set the tone for the movie even as they serve to introduce Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who goes from standing by and watching colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) administer torture to ordering punishment herself.

Maya’s quarry is bin Laden and, over the course of the next two hours, she pursues not sightings of the al Qaeda leader – there aren’t any legitimate ones – but the identity and whereabouts of people who might have contact with him.

Over the course of several years, Maya and fellow operatives like Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) interrogate those with knowledge of bin Laden and those protecting him, cultivate sources and begin to focus – obsessively, at times, for Maya – on a courier who is reportedly bin Laden’s connection to the outside world.

As most of the world knows, the CIA finally finds the courier and tracks him to a Pakistani town and fortress-like compound where bin Laden has been hiding … well, not in plain sight, but in a far more likely location than a remote cave for the leader of an international terror organization.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal let the story unfold at a deliberate pace but pepper it with suspenseful scenes, including Jessica’s meeting at an Afghan base with a potential informant as well as the tracking of the courier.

It surprised me, somewhat, to see “Zero Dark Thirty” described online as a spy thriller. It is, certainly, but aside from the raid on bin Laden’s compound the movie came across most like a political thriller as Maya pushes her way through CIA bureaucracy, the doubts of her superiors and what seems like a more urgent mission for many in government than finding bin Laden: preventing future terror attacks.

Chastain is quite good as the smart and dedicated Maya, a character based on the woman who led the decade-long pursuit of bin Laden.

The movie features a cast of familiar faces, from Mark Strong (“Green Lantern”) and Harold Parrineau (“Lost”) to Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”) and Joel Edgerton (the “Star Wars” prequels). Luckily, they don’t pull the audience out of the story.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a first-rate political and historical thriller.

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