'Zero Dark Thirty' Review: An Unforgettable Procedural Anchored By One Woman's Sense Of Patriotic Duty

In America, we're told that if we work hard, we can accomplish anything. Jessica Chastain's character in Zero Dark Thirty, Maya, personifies that patriotic belief, as over the course of a decade she strives to capture the terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Her inspiring true story is the driving force behind the latest film from the Oscar winners behind The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.

Other than being incredibly interesting and historic, what makes Maya's hunt so riveting is how her goal of finding Bin Laden is constantly opposed by everyone surrounding her. At every turn, powerful American officials argue that the architect of September 11 and Al Qaeda leader is a white whale, an impossible-to-find needle in a haystack. Yet Maya perseveres through almost unfathomable tragedy and opposition, until her efforts culminate on that fateful night in May of 2011.

Zero Dark Thirty is a fantastic, detailed procedural in the mold of Zodiac, All the Presidents Men or The Insider, but with more action along the lines of Traffic or Heat. Structurally, it's much more straightforward than those films, but the fact that it centers on a strong, singular female character gives it a powerful emotional core. Come 2013, Zero Dark Thirty is going to be a major player at the Oscars. Read more after the jump.Zero Dark Thirty begins with a black screen and audio from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The phone call, placed by a female worker to a 911 operator, is bone-chilling, and the perfect way to remind us of how America felt on that terrible day. The film then jumps ahead a few years (a tactic it uses almost too often) and we meet Maya during her first CIA interrogation. The result of the interrogation's visceral brutality will give her the first clue to unravel the mystery of Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts, though she's still about eight years from the endgame.

From there the film takes a very straightforward, A-to-B-to-C approach to describe the investigation. Person A gives a clue leading to person B, who gives a hint toward person C and so on. The linear nature of the case lends itself well to a film narrative, and leads to some harrowing exchanges throughout, but it's a tad underwhelming.

Maya's day to day work is undoubtedly impressive and valiant, but the film presents everything with such a matter of fact tone, and at such a brisk pace, it's sometimes difficult to truly feel her lack of progress. Jumping ahead a few years at a time makes her success seem rapid, when it was anything but. Therefore, at times it's difficult for us to truly feel antagonistic toward superiors who keep telling her this is not the best way to fight terrorism. It feels like she's getting stuff done, when in reality years are passing with no forward movement.

What Boal and Bigelow do to combat this linear structure is delve deep into the character's emotional struggle. Maya is a lone wolf; single, alone, without friends. Everything she is and all she believes in tells her this work will eventually uncover Osama Bin Laden. That drive, desire and perseverance is beautifully illustrated through Chastain's performance. As the logistical core of the story unfolds, her passion and persona keeps us emotionally involved. Even if the film moves quickly, Chastain's weariness shines through.

The Zero Dark Thirty supporting cast is too long and impressive not to mention. Actors like Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramírez, Joel Edgerton, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo and James Gandolfini all knock their roles out of the park, whether their part is big or small. They give Maya different points of view to play off. But ultimately, this is a one-woman show. Chastain holds her own and then some.

Finally, with about a half hour to go, Seal Team Six is introduced and the film's point of view finally switches. We're simultaneously glued to our seats and slightly uncomfortable, but not because we're worried about the result. Bigelow and Boal have us so invested in Maya that once everything is out of her hands, we feel her helplessness. And while the big moment feels slightly anti-climactic, Boal and Bigelow tag that with a more than satisfying emotional conclusion.

Zero Dark Thirty has a few small problems but is incredibly intense and instantly memorable overall. Yes, it's more linear than other films of its genre, but then again, that's how it happened and it's a true story that deserved and to be told. All real complexity is right there in the main character.

/Film rating: 8.5 of 10