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Jessica Chastain stars in the troubling, infuriating 'Zero Dark Thirty' (+trailer)

'Zero Dark Thirty' avoids political bias too conscientiously.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / December 14, 2012

Jessica Chastain stars in 'Zero Dark Thirty.'

Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc./AP

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Kathryn Bigelow’s troubling, infuriating “Zero Dark Thirty” is about Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent whose obsessive single-mindedness eventually lands Osama bin Laden in a body bag. Like Ahab, she is fixated on her prey to the exclusion of all else. Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, who also collaborated on “The Hurt Locker,” deny Maya virtually any back story. We know almost nothing about her life away from the film’s decade-long hunt. She is a cipher – a vengeance machine with flame-red hair.

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Bigelow began this project when bin Laden was still on the run but changed course when he was tracked down and killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011, in the assault on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. As in “The Hurt Locker,” which was about an American bomb disposal unit in Iraq, Bigelow doesn’t expend a lot of energy putting the commotion into a political context. “Zero Dark Thirty” is essentially, or at least ostensibly, an action thriller. But since we already know the outcome of the SEAL operation, which occupies the final half-hour of this more than 2-1/2-hour movie, the film’s narrative has a methodical sameness. This is a nuts-and-bolts cinematic dossier on how the job was done.

What I find troubling and infuriating is that by turning the hunt for bin Laden, however expertly, into a glorified police procedural, Bigelow neutralizes the most controversial and charged aspects of this story. (To no avail, I might add: The film is controversial anyway.) President George W. Bush is never shown, ditto Dick Cheney, Iraq is AWOL, and President Obama is only glimpsed in a 2008 campaign interview. This is a bit like making a movie about the D-Day invasion without referencing FDR or Eisenhower.

Actually, it’s much worse, since the film traffics in scenes of torture. Its first full sequence, in fact, has a CIA officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), brutally interrogating a man (Reda Kateb) suspected of having information about bin Laden’s courier while Maya, new to all this, observes in hushed compliance. The waterboarding and pummeling and all the rest is presented as crucial to bin Laden’s eventual capture. Mission accomplished, sort of.

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