“Zeroing in for the Kill”

“Zero Dark Thirty”
Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

“I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”

About halfway through “Zero Dark Thirty” – the captivating procedural thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team behind 2009’s Best Picture-winner “The Hurt Locker” – those five words are spoken with fierce conviction by Maya, the obsessed intelligence-gathering CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain.

It goes without saying that Maya delivered on her promise to take down the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks after spending the better part of a decade zeroing in on her target. But how she did so makes for a fascinating, extremely riveting and incredibly powerful cinematic experience that culminates with the now-famous raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, carried out by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011.

As soon as the mission was accomplished, the code words were called in: “For God and country – Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” The 35-minute raid scene that leads to that moment of truth is vividly executed by Bigelow, but the previous 2 hours are just as compelling, resulting in an engrossing account of how one determined woman defied the odds to find the most wanted terrorist in the world.

Perhaps the character that Maya most closely resembles is Clarice Starling, the young FBI cadet played by Jodie Foster in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” But while Maya is initially distressed by the extreme measures taken to interrogate a captured Al Qaeda operative at a CIA black house, she quickly develops the thick skin that she will need to navigate her way through her hostile environment, loads of red tape, testosterone and political bureaucracy.

And after a breakthrough year that included co-starring roles in “The Tree of Life,” “Take Shelter,” “The Debt” and an Oscar-nominated turn in “The Help,” Jessica Chastain gives a powerfully restrained performance as Maya, a woman so devoted to her high-stakes job that her personal life is practically non-existent. The hunt for bin Laden is seen through her eyes, while the rest of the film’s intelligent and intricate structure puts it in the same league as 1976’s “All the President’s Men,” 2005’s “Munich” and 2006’s “United 93.”

But “Zero Dark Thirty” plays out more like a thriller, and the road to bin Laden is littered like a minefield. If Maya isn’t struggling to hold her own with her colleagues (played by Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle) or butting heads with her superiors (played by Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong), she grows more frustrated by other deadly attacks around the world, like the London bombings of 2005, the Karachi bombing of the Marriott Hotel in 2008 and a suicide bombing at a remote CIA base in Afghanistan in 2009.

And just when the increased frequency of those attacks seem to push bin Laden further out of reach, Maya makes the breakthrough that she needs to put the odds in her favor. That leads to the executive decision to attack bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, which is carried out with visceral intensity while revealing just how close the whole operation came to turning into a disaster along the lines of “Black Hawk Down.”

Of course, we know how it turned out, but that’s just one of the reasons why “Zero Dark Thirty” is so unforgettable. Bigelow and Boal have crafted yet another masterwork that matches the hard-hitting impact of “The Hurt Locker,” and it’s a triumph that will no doubt leave you thinking “for God and country,” indeed.

-Scott Mantz