‘Zero’: Skillful depiction of hunt for bin Laden

Arriving on a few different waves of critics’ awards and controversy, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is already a conversation piece. Much of the talk has been from people who haven’t seen the movie yet.

Does the film condone America’s use of torture during the so-called “war on terror”? Does it play too loose with the facts in creating a storyline around an extremely important true story? Will liberals or conservatives be more upset about the movie?

“Zero Dark Thirty” chronicles the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden and culminates in a long, grim depiction of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

Director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who won Oscars for “The Hurt Locker,” have arranged this narrative around a fictional character named Maya, who may or may not be based on a real CIA agent.

Bigelow’s skills as a director are topflight, and Maya is played by the talented Jessica Chastain, who is very strong here. We are dropped straight into Maya’s story with only a brief prologue: the sounds of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, and a mercifully black screen.

The early sequences are dominated by images of torture, as a U.S. agent waterboards and generally beats the hell out of a suspect. The agent is played by Jason Clarke, one of the brothers in “Lawless”; his lack of movie-star appeal is appropriate under these circumstances, because the movie takes an affectless stance: It does not push you to identify with or condemn these actions.

Quite a bit later in the film, the same suspect gives up a piece of information, not during torture but because of an interrogation trick. This has led some people to suggest that the movie is stating that torture resulted in the capture of bin Laden. If I’m reading the movie correctly, that’s not what the movie is stating.

The CIA itself, in the voice of its acting director, has cautioned against taking the cinematic version as absolute truth. Usually film critics say that, but with less authority.

“Zero Dark Thirty” attempts a kind of flat, procedural approach to the hunt for al-Qaida’s mass murderer. We observe the tensions within the agency as leads grow cold and patience frays. In Chastain’s cool performance, we see the toll taken by the search.

As in “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow and Boal make a ground-level survey. People with names like Bush and Obama appear as partially heard voices on the television, not as major players; when a character who is probably CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) arrives, he isn’t even identified.

I saw the movie a month ago, before controversies began to spring up around it. While being riveted by its astonishingly focused forward motion, I was also puzzled: Was there really a “Maya”? Was this how it actually went down?

Poetic license is one thing, but this is a big story of our time, and it would be nice to know what’s real.

I was somewhat thrown by the concentration on a hero’s journey, too. Where, say, “Lincoln” is a real procedural, with dozens of characters putting together the pieces of a project, “Zero Dark Thirty” revolves around Maya even as it journeys with the Navy SEALS on their mission.

It all works, no doubt about it. From Bigelow’s edgy instincts about how to stage action to Alexandre Desplat’s eerie music, this movie will put its grip on you. It made me uneasy in a variety of ways, and that’s probably its goal.

“Zero Dark Thirty” ½

The decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, focusing on a CIA agent (Jessica Chastain) and culminating in the 2011 Navy SEALS’ raid in Pakistan. “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow knows exactly how to stage action and sustain momentum, and the movie skillfully puts its grip on you, even as its flat, affectless approach leaves you to make up your own mind about the sometimes unsettling events depicted here.

Rated: R for violence, language.

Showing: Alderwood Seven, Meridian.

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