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Shedding Grim Light On A 'Dark' Story

CIA operative Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) discusses a sensitive operation with Dan (Jason Clarke). (Sony Pictures)

With the screen pitch-black at the start of Zero Dark Thirty, we hear the confusion and alarm of Sept. 11, 2001: News reports that a plane has hit the World Trade Center, then the voices of a 911 operator reassuring a frightened trade center worker that she'll be OK, though she won't.

When the screen finally brightens, it's for a grim "black site" interrogation half a world away — a nephew of Osama bin Laden (Reda Kateb) strung up from the ceiling, bruised and bloodied, finally cut down only so that he can be waterboarded and stuffed into a tiny crate.

Witnessing all this is a fresh-off-the-plane CIA tracker, Maya, played with fierceness and virtually no back story by Jessica Chastain. This first interrogation leaves her outwardly shaken, but once she settles in, she exhibits single-mindedness and inner resolve enough to weather all the investigative blind alleys ahead.

Zero Dark Thirty

  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Genre: Action
  • Running time: 157 minutes

Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.

With: Chris Pratt, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton

(Recommended)

"You don't think she's a little young for the hard stuff?" the interrogator (Jason Clarke) asks their boss (Kyle Chandler).

"Washington," he replies flatly, "says she's a killer."

That proves literally true, though not for years yet. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, director and writer of The Hurt Locker, will first send their heroine through a bureaucratic and ethical minefield — one where a colleague's misstep proves fatal, the investigative terrain changes daily, and her superiors all have blind spots, even as to the wisdom of going after bin Laden.

That she will prevail, we know going in. But the hows and whys make Zero Dark Thirty a riveting investigative procedural for its first two hours, with a host of secondary players — particularly Jennifer Ehle as a more experienced tracker who strikes up a friendship with Maya — making brief but indelible impressions.

And the payoff coming in the final 40 minutes, after Navy SEALs plunge in stealth helicopters through a mountain range in inky blackness toward Abbottabad, is almost more startling than anything that went before.

Every action movie you've ever seen has prepared you for a rush through doors and up stairs when they get to the bin Laden compound. But that's not what happened in real life. So, shooting in night-vision greens and blacks, Bigelow shows us what did happen — a careful, painstaking, methodical assault, that's made cinematically pulse-quickening not by Hollywood flash, but by the operation's very slowness and discipline in the face of a gathering, angry crowd.

No one who saw The Hurt Locker would expect these filmmakers to turn the hunt for the world's most notorious terrorist into a rah-rah, get-the-bad-guy thriller. But the degree of complexity they bring to their story, starting with that opening, terrorist violence meets cruel interrogations juxtaposition, and extending to the killings in Abbottabad, has to be counted a surprise in a major Hollywood film.

Was the death of Osama bin Laden worth the moral price, the compromised ideals? The filmmakers could hardly avoid raising those questions, but they pointedly leave them for the audience to answer. This is not a triumphant story in their telling, but it is one uncommonly freighted with the weight of history. (Recommended)

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The new movie "Zero Dark Thirty" tells the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the raid into Pakistan that resulted in his death. The film has been a political football for months. Some question its depiction of the role of harsh interrogation methods. Many have also asked if filmmakers had access to classified information.

Well, critic Bob Mondello must now answer another question: Is the movie any good?

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: With the screen pitch-black at the start of "Zero Dark Thirty," we hear the confusion and alarm of September 11, 2001; reports that a plane has hit the World Trade Center, then the voices of a 911 operator reassuring a frightened trade center worker that she'll be OK, though she won't.

When the screen finally brightens, it's for a grim black site interrogation half a world away. A nephew of Osama bin Laden strung up from the ceiling, bruised and bloodied, finally cut down only so that he can be waterboarded. Witnessing all this is a new CIA tracker, played with fierceness and almost no back-story by Jessica Chastain. She appears outwardly shaken, but once she settles in...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Third floor northeast corner.

MONDELLO: Her colleagues will realize she has a single-mindedness and inner resolve that'll carry her through trips down lots of investigative blind alleys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

JASON CLARKE: (as Dan) You don't think she's a little young for the hard stuff?

KYLE CHANDLER: (as Joseph Bradley) Washington says she's a killer.

MONDELLO: A killer, literally true, though not for years yet.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, director and writer of "The Hurt Locker," must first send their heroine through a bureaucratic minefield - one where a colleague's misstep proves lethal, the investigative terrain changes daily, and her superiors have blind spots.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: I don't care about bin Laden. You're going to start working on the American Al-Qaida cells, protect the homeland

JESSICA CHASTAIN: (as Maya) You mean if you just want me to nail some low-level mullah-cracka-dollah, so you can check that box on your resume that says that while you were in Pakistan, you got a real terrorist. But the truth is, you don't understand Pakistan, and you don't know al-Qaida. Either give me the team I need to follow this lead, or the other thing you're going to have on your resume is going to be being the first station chief to be called before a congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden.

MONDELLO: That she will prevail, you know going in. But the hows and whys make "Zero Dark Thirty" a riveting investigative procedural for its first two hours. And the payoff, the remaining 40 minutes, when Navy SEALs plunge in their stealth helicopters through a mountain range in inky blackness, is almost more startling than anything that went before.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS)

MONDELLO: Every action movie you've ever seen has prepared you for a rush through doors and up stairs when they get to the compound in Abbottabad. But that's not what happened in real life. So, shooting in night-vision greens and blacks, Bigelow shows us a careful, painstaking, methodical assault made pulse-quickening not by Hollywood flash, but by the operation's very slowness and discipline in the face of a gathering, angry crowd.

No one who saw "The Hurt Locker" would expect these filmmakers to turn the hunt for the world's most notorious terrorist into a rah-rah, get-the-bad-guy thriller. But the degree of complexity they bring to their subject has to be counted a surprise in a major Hollywood film.

Was the death of Osama bin Laden worth the moral price, the compromised ideals? The filmmakers almost can't help raising those questions, but they leave them for the audience to answer. This is not a triumphant story in their telling, but it is one uncommonly freighted with the weight of history.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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