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Although many film makers and studios have benefited from using real-life events as movie source material, often reality has tripped up directors and screenwriters. Such is the case with ZERO DARK THIRTY. And we moviegoers are much richer for it. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were preparing a follow-up to their 2008 Oscar winner THE HURT LOCKER. They were going to tell the story of the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, the hiding place of 9/11 plotter Osama Bin Laden. Much of the story would have involved the effort to track him down. Then May 1, 2011 happened. US forces killed Bin Laden. The Tora Bora project was scrapped, but much of Boal’s extensive reasearch would be applied to this new film concerning one determined CIA agent’s efforts in this long mission (with its conclusion). Few films have succeeded in capturing the drama of such a recent event. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN springs to mind back in 1976 (but much of those facts had been unearthed by the two reporters). The true tales of 9/11 have been given screen treatment before in films such as WORLD TRADE CENTER and FLIGHT 93, but none have approached the immediacy that Bigelow and Boal have delivered here. Perhaps this is cinematic lightning in a bottle.

The film opens with a black screen, underscored by actual telephone recordings of people trapped in the twin towers on that 2001 morning. Two years later we’re taken to a black site in the Mideast where interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) uses “enhanced” methods to extract information from a prisoner. With Dan is CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain). For the next several years we follow this single-minded agent’s quest to locate Bin Laden. She clashes with superiors while pursuing leads that sometimes are dead ends. While the beurocrats stumble and hesitate, the terror attacks continue. But Maya forges ahead, clear in her goal. Then finally a break. A courier is tracked down in Pakistan. Could this be where Bin Laden is hiding? After much intelligence gathering and persuasion the order is finally given. The finale ends with Navy Seal Team Six flying in on stealth helicopters to storm a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan during a dark night nineteen months ago.

As far as the acting goes, THIRTY’s impact rests on the very capable shoulders of Chastain as the doggedly determined, hopefully future role model, Maya. We never see her blowing away the baddies, but she’s just as intimidating as the Black Widow (of MARVEL’S AVENGERS) or any countless heroines based on video game characters. Nothing and no one makes her back down. We see her passion and her frustration when it seems that nobody has her back. We feel her pain as the enemy insurgents strike those close to her. But there’s no phone calls or letters dashed off to the family back in the states (no distracting romances, either). She’s there to finish the job. Chastain seemed to explode on screen (after several years on stage and television) out of nowhere in 2011 with THE DEBT, THE TREE OF LIFE, TAKE SHELTER, and THE HELP (which gave her an Oscar nomination). THIRTY firmly establishes her one of our most compelling, gifted film actresses.

But she’s not the only actor doing terrific work here. There’s Chastain’s LAWLESS co-star Clarke as the brutal, but conflicted Dan. The “interrogations” cause him internal pain as he’s dishing out the external hurt on the prisoners. He’s got to get out before he loses his humanity. Dan’s scary, but he’s really a wounded bear who wants to do what’s right. Jennifer Ehle is memorable as Jessica, the other woman in the CIA’s inner circle. She’s irked at first by the brash Maya, but soon they form a bond of mutual respect. Also great are Maya’s supervisors played by Kyle Chandler (also in ARGO) and Mark Strong. Oh, and James Gandolfini shines in a few brief scenes as the CIA director (presumably Leon Penneta). The film’s gripping final act belongs to the seal team anchored bt Joel Edgerton (WARRIOR) and Chris Pratt (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”). No flashy actor tricks on display here. All are a great cast united to make this piece of history come alive.

As great as the cast is, they’d flounder about without the expertly investigated script by Boal and the lean, taut direction by Bigelow. There’s been quite a lot of talk in the news media lately about Boal’s access and authenticity. Yes, there are horrific scenes of  “enhanced interrogation techniques” (along with news video of our prez saying that we do not torture), but we also get to see the way info can be extracted almost casually. How the turn of a phrase, or vague wording can be more effective than the ropes and cages. The amount of military and Mideast jargon thrown at the viewer during the opening sequences can be confusing, but soon we’re accustomed to the rhythms of conversation in the many meetings and rushing-down-the-hallway conversations (some get close to the energy of a Howard Hawks directed rat-a-tat verbal exchange). And Bigelow knows exactly how to make this complex story work. There’s tension in the quiet scenes of Maya staring at her computer screen during the lonely wee hours (and when she must don a wig or native dress to head into the dusty streets). These are the hushed moments between some truly nail-biting sequences. There’s the arrest near a fountain in broad daylight. An uneasy meeting with a possible informant at a US military camp followed by CIA agents weaving through crowded, dangerous traffic in Pakistan as they try to get a bead on a single cell phone single. But as they say, the best is saved for last. The film’s final act is those nearly silent copters gliding through the mountains into Abbottabad. Sure, we know what went down, but you might just be digging your fingers into the theatre armrests, it’s that gripping. Bigelow’s made a name for herself over the years as an expert action film maker, and she does not disappoint here. The movie clocks in at nearly three hours, but thanks to her skills, it never lags, never wanders. ZERO DARK THIRTY is a masterful recreation of recent history. You know the outcome, and thanks to this film we get to know more about those involved, especially one fearless, intelligent woman. This is a docudrama that’s an exceptional, thought-provoking classic thriller. Most of the country’s getting THIRTY now, but it’s my choice for the best film of 2012.

5 Out of 5 Stars

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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