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In The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal told a riveting story against the backdrop of the war-torn Middle East. In their new collaboration, Zero Dark Thirty, they dramatize a real-life series of events, spanning nearly a decade, that are just as compelling and even more complex. The through-line is the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. What makes the movie so effective is its protagonist, a doggedly determined CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain, who never loses sight of her goal in spite of repeated setbacks and bouts of political in-fighting.

Boal’s script is based on first-hand reportage and he has masked his characters’ true identities. I have no way of knowing how close to the actual  person Chastain’s gutsy, single-minded “targeter” may be but she certainly seems real, especially as played by this gifted actress. By focusing on her we have someone to relate to as we make our way through years of tireless (and often fruitless) effort.

Pursuing leads, following hunches, gaining support for unusual tactics and even (yes) torturing prisoners all play a role in the desperate but long-term  hunt for the world’s number-one terrorist…yet Zero Dark Thirty is never dry or repetitious. What we get is a clear-eyed picture of just how difficult and frustrating it is to search for a needle in a haystack. We also see how luck has its place in the world of espionage—though as the old saying goes, the harder you work the luckier you get.

Oddly, I found the climactic operation by the intrepid band of Navy SEALs, invading the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, to be the least interesting part of the movie, even though it’s staged and shot with great attention to detail. The execution of this daring raid—the outcome of which is well known by now—is less absorbing than everything that leads up to it, though other viewers may disagree. (It also comes more than two hours into the picture, which runs two hours and forty minutes.)

A strong cast includes Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong (playing American, for a change), Joel Edgerton, Stephen Dillane, Mark Duplass, Chris Pratt, and James Gandolfini. They all bring life to their characters, whether they’re political functionaries or agents on the front lines. But it’s Jessica Chastain who anchors the film and carries it home for us. In a film that avoids Hollywood histrionics, to immerse us in a world we know little about, this was perhaps the filmmakers’ best decision. Once you get past the headlines, the spin, and the mountain of details, the search for bin Laden was about people—gutsy, hard-working, hard-headed people like the one Chastain embodies so well.

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