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FILM REVIEW: Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty is an action film punctuated by as many board meetings as bullets. Like a post-millennial John le Carré novel, it's a work of muscular filmmaking: filled with the smallest details, centred on the slender shoulders of Maya. A slightly grubby Jessica Chastain plays the CIA agent who worked on the Osama bin Laden file with what eventually grows to be a religious fervour.

But let me back up and unpack that le Carré reference. Like the best of the spy novelist's stories, ZD30 is brimming with cutting edge gadgetry, not to mention "tradecraft." Tracking their quarry, the CIA use the latest in cell phone tracking and email filtering. At one point we're even brought inside a re-creation of "Predator Bay", the control centre for the CIA's pilot-less drones.

 Jessica Chastain portrays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama bin Laden. (Columbia Pictures)

And like le Carré, ZD30 keeps its emotions in check. At times, this is a surprisingly dispassionate procedural — call it Law and Order Kabul — splitting the decade-long hunt into segments, focusing first on the Saudi Group, then moving to Pakistan, eventually to Kuwait and onwards, as journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal hopscotches through the war on terror.

But rather than place names, it's the human details that give ZD30 its ring of authenticity: The Navy SEAL who listens to Tony Robbins tapes during the flight to Abbottabad; Maya and her CIA friend Jessica instant-messaging each other during operations; or the CIA interrogator Dan, who sounds more like a surfer than a soldier and peppers his conversations with "dudes" and "bros."

Part of the contradiction of this film is how real and natural the characters seem, yet how little we know about them. It's like being thrown into a TV show mid-season — the story is already in progress, no one is given the luxury of back story, especially Maya, the biggest cipher of all. Does she have parents? A social life? All seemingly irrelevant for this intelligence nerd. Her life is about the job, the job, the job.

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It's a job that right from the opening sequence — as the screams from Sept. 11 fade in our ears — involves "enhanced interrogation," the agency's polite term for torture. Part of what makes ZD30 so disturbing is how it implicates Maya, and us, the audience. Within minutes of her first arrival at a CIA black site Maya, fresh off the plane, is handing Dan a bucket, assisting in waterboarding a detainee.

It's difficult to watch and Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal don't blink, but they also don't judge. We see Ammar sputtering on the ground and then soon after, over a nice meal of figs and hummus, the al-Qaeda middleman gives up a name. It eventually leads to bin Laden's courier. A lot of ink has been spilled over whether ZD30 is a pro-torture film or perhaps the unwitting patsy of the CIA. But the torture sequence is one small step on the very long path to America's most wanted man.

If anything, ZD30 demonstrates how, for agents, the fiercest foe was time. Maya, Dan, Jessica and station chief Joseph Bradley are bleeding money and resources while terrorist bombings continue. The tense surprise attack on a Afghan base underlines the danger of allowing yourself to believe a source is ready to turn and the price of being wrong.

Kathryn BigelowDirector and producer Kathryn Bigelow is seen on the set of Zero Dark Thirty. (Columbia Pictures)

On Thursday, Chastain netted an Oscar nomination for her role as Maya and deservedly so. Although Boal and Bigelow give us a little insight into the agent's roots, it's left up to the actor to communicate the weight of her mission with her red-tinged eyes, her sloped shoulders and the pinched expression on her face. Reda Kateb, Australian Jason Clarke and Edgar Ramirez round out an impressive cast. Kyle Chandler, the helmet-haired boss of Friday Night Lights, seems a less-than-imaginative choice for station chief Joseph Bradley, but kudos for the brief inclusion of Mark Duplass, who brings a smidge of levity to CIA headquarters in Langley.

My only hesitations around ZD30 revolve around its ice-cold presentation of events. Stripping the story down to the bare facts and leaving characterization to a minimum makes for a smart, sophisticated story, but it also feels like a dodge of sorts. It is cowardly not to take a side? Or is this the only appropriate treatment for such serious material?

That's just a hint of the kind of conversation ZD30 is guaranteed to inspire. In the meantime, not only is it an early contender for one of the best action films of 2013, it's also an important film. It has the thrills of a first-person shooter in the final tense 20 minutes creeping around bin Laden's bunker, but before the payoff, Zero Dark Thirty puts us right in the muck — deep in the fog of war. It's a film that asks more questions than it answers, showing how the U.S. finally killed its quarry, but also some of what was lost along the way.

RATING: 4 out of 5

Kyle Chandler and Jason ClarkeKyle Chandler (left) and Jason Clarke appear in a scene in Zero Dark Thirty. (Columbia Pictures)

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