Kathryn Bigelow’s procedural about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is enthralling.

There’s a lot of hype for Zero Dark Thirty. One reason is because director Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, The Hurt Locker, was a huge critical success and won the 2010 Best Picture Oscar. Another is the obvious—it chronicles the hunt and ultimate killing of Osama Bin Laden. While it’s a timely subject, as his demise is still less than two years old, it may be a fog that hangs too low over the film and the killing of public enemy No. 1 may slightly outweigh the film itself. It’s hard to differentiate the film from a subject matter that is so large, so fresh and still so mysterious. That said, Bigelow does ultimately deliver a taught, exciting search-and-destroy picture.

Being a procedural, the film is focused, mainly, on one thing—plot. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the characters are dull. The film is interested in getting to know who these characters are, not through long diatribes about their histories but through their actions as it relates to the plot. In this case it’s Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) exhausting and persistent hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Sent to Pakistan, Maya is immediately led to the torture of an Al Qaeda member led by Dan (Jason Clarke). It’s no irony that later in the film Obama is seen on TV stating that America does not use or condone torture. And yet it doesn’t necessarily advocate for or against torture. While torture is the first step of many to finding Bin Laden, it doesn’t unequivocally make the statement that it’s necessary. Instead, and judging by Maya’s uncomfortable reaction, it seems to say that torture is ugly but that it is a tactic used, if a misguided one.

Many will be trying to figure out how realistic this film is, but at the end of the day it shouldn’t matter. This is an action film. It’s not a scholarly text or a documentary chronicling what really happened. It’s a film that is based on a true story but that doesn’t mean it is the true story.

That said, Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal were given access to many documents and contacts to recreate the hunt as closely as possible. But one has to believe that when deciding between the whole truth and slightly altering it for cinematic impact, Bigelow and Boal would go for the latter. They are making a film that intends to entertain, after all.

With that in mind, they do stick to the facts as best as they can, and as much as they know about them, and the film spans nearly a decade of Maya’s hunt. It not only illustrates her difficulty in obtaining the information she needs but also, when she does, the red tape she comes up against from her superiors. Their world is ruled by analyzing data and making an informed decision. For Maya, much of her data is based on her instinct and not always hard facts. For many this isn’t good enough. But being bullheaded and persistent she slowly makes it known that she isn’t someone to be messed with.

And unlike Claire Danes’ Carrie in Homeland she doesn’t have, or even appear to have, some sort of mental disorder that throws into question her instincts. Rather she comes off as a strong willed, if sometimes overly so, character that isn’t about to lie down and wait. Unlike her comrades and superiors, including CIA Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley, who seem to treat their jobs as jobs, able to turn it off and on, she has a one track mind. She can’t turn it off until it’s done.

It’ll be interesting to see how the film is taken years down the line, when Osama’s killing is in the distant past and, maybe, more has been released about the manhunt. For now, Bigelow’s film is acting as a big scratch to a huge itch. It’s satisfying, well made, well acted and taut in it’s own right but when does it become less a document of reality and become a film? That seems to be a question worth asking and it’s a film that will almost certainly be reevaluated many times through the years. For now, it hits home hard in a way that’s still raw in the American psyche. But, it’s also a fantastic film and without a doubt, the best of Bigelow’s career.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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