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How many filmmakers can pull off this sort of wizardry? How many can weave together tense action sequences with the fierce subtext of feminine authority, all while making a stripped-down film about the most famous manhunt of our time? Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal successfully blend incisive, captivating ideas into Zero Dark Thirty without abandoning the demands of their procedural-like narrative. What they've accomplished isn't just impressive -- it's stupefying.
Bigelow's greatest trick, though, might be the anxiety she stirs during the film's depiction of the famous Abbottabad raid that killed bin Laden in 2011. Even if you know every major beat of the raid, the extended sequence is agonizingly tense. It doesn't matter that we know how it happened. Bigelow recreates the scene with a master's eye for dramatic action. As the SEAL team (led by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) glides toward bin Laden's compound, the cameras transition to a stark-looking sort of night vision that places the audience in the raid. It's an obvious genre move, but Bigelow pulls it off with a grace that further heightens the tension of Zero Dark Thirty's climax. The only sequence that may be better is the film's final shot, where Chastain's face expresses everything that this film spends two-and-a-half-hours building toward.
Yet, a flood of criticism -- specifically, about those early torture scenes and how Ammar's admission helped Maya track down bin Laden -- suggests that Zero Dark Thirty can be easily misinterpreted. Several prominent politicians, as well as the director of the CIA, claim that torture didn't reveal any information that led to bin Laden's capture and death. If this is true, Zero Dark Thirty has a potentially deceptive narrative that eschews absolute accuracy for the sake of artistic expression. I don't think this is a bad thing. Consider the stunning way Bigelow manages to confront an ugly part of recent U.S. policy, forcing us to face the moral complexities that fueled the abhorrent permission of torture. Any film can tell you torture is bad. Zero Dark Thirty makes you think about why it happened.
This is a brilliant, problematic, film. See it at your own risk.