Kathryn Bigelow's slow-burning and brilliant Zero Dark Thirty presents itself as "based on firsthand accounts of actual events." And while some people - U.S. senators, the acting head of the CIA among them - have challenged its veracity on certain key points, this much can be said: As a hugely compressed account of the Osama bin Laden manhunt, as a compelling but troubling look at "black ops" tradecraft, and as a riveting portrait of a fiercely determined woman working in a male-dominated sphere, the film is a resounding success.
Yes, we know the outcome: bin Laden shot dead by Navy SEALs in his compound in Bilal, Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011. And still, every step leading to that nighttime raid - and every step the SEALs take moving stealthily up the narrow stairs of bin Laden's house - is fraught with tension and dread. Bigelow - in tandem with screenwriter Mark Boal, her partner on their Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker - is simply at the top of her game.
And so is Jessica Chastain. The actress, who seemed to be in every other movie released in 2011 (landing a supporting-actress Oscar nomination for The Help, winning heaps o' praise for her work in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life), stars as Maya, a CIA officer obsessed with tracking down the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Based on a real operative in the agency, Chastain's Maya is cool and composed, her eyes often hidden behind aviator glasses, her expression unrevealing. Maybe there's a twitch of discomfort as she observes a colleague (Jason Clarke) brutally interrogating a suspected al-Qaeda contact, or maybe that was just a fly buzzing annoyingly around her in the hot, dirty cell.
If Zero Dark Thirty (the title is military-speak for half-past midnight) represents the globe-spanning, 10-year search for bin Laden - full of false leads and fatal attacks - it also represents the personal journey of a woman who has nothing else but this mission. Over dinner at the Islamabad Marriott, a fellow agent, another woman (a terrific Jennifer Ehle), asks Maya if there's a man in her life. There isn't.