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'Zero Dark Thirty' review: The year's superior true-war story

***1/2 (out of four)

And that’ll do it for “Argo.”

Ben Affleck’s widely praised Oscar contender is plenty entertaining, but its sense of place and investigative detail don’t come within miles of the immersive power of “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow’s and her “Hurt Locker” writer Mark Boal’s tale of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. You walk out of “Argo” tense and impressed at the craft; after the mission in “Zero,” which is “based on first-hand accounts” of real events, you feel like you were there.

The film, which opens in Chicago on Jan. 4, hinges on something that’s difficult to summarize and presumably even more difficult to report: CIA intelligence. Two years after 9/11/2001—the film opens with audio recordings from that day, including a woman’s 911 call from a high floor of the World Trade Center—Maya (Jessica Chastain) doesn’t even change out of her suit before arriving in the Middle East for a waterboarding-assisted interrogation. The interrogator (Jason Clarke of “The Chicago Code”), who means it when he says to the detainee, “When you lie to me, I hurt you,” tells her there’s no shame if she prefers to watch on a monitor outside the room. No dice; Maya wants to show she belongs, even if it takes time for her to stomach the suffering and humiliation she sees.

This, of course, is a small piece in a giant puzzle. “Zero Dark Thirty,” which also features Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton, challenges viewers to keep up with developing information gathered by both controversial and desperate means. It’s evident that, as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

The 157-minute running time zooms by. That’ll happen in a movie this engaging and consistently riveting. Explosions terrify; possible leads go nowhere—or to tragedy. Throughout, Bigelow and Boal don’t shovel on the human aspect. Maya must compensate for male colleagues subtly underestimating her. What she loses by committing so deeply and permanently to her pursuit of bin Laden becomes evident not, say, via expository dialogue about her family or background but through Chastain’s performance. Her resolve is so strong that when Maya’s determination finally gives way to fatigue, the moment is likewise emotionally shattering to watch.

So much of the tightly focused film operates on a believable wavelength that a few lines ring false—blatant screenwriting (like “Do your [bleepin’] jobs; bring me people to kill”) that pulls you out of a movie in which you’re up to your neck.

Of course, never does the apolitical “Zero Dark Thirty” make a manhunt look easy or use music or action to create a rah-rah salute to the heroes. Agents and soldiers scrap and push and do their jobs, without fear and without fail.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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