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Darkness on the Edge of Town

The thrilling manhunt of Zero Dark Thirty.

About 25 minutes of screen time pass before we first hear the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the trusted bin Laden courier who will eventually lead the CIA to their prize catch, though at this point, victory is still years away. But if progress is slow in Zero Dark Thirty, the flow of information is a riptide, and the movie doesn't wait for you to catch up. There are more than 100 speaking parts — fellow analysts, CIA chiefs, national security advisers, SEAL team members — many of them played by familiar faces managing to seem unfamiliar, entering for a scene or two and just as soon disappearing, sometimes before we've had a chance to register their characters' names. Sometimes Bigelow and Boal don't even tell us the names, because they put enough trust in the audience to assume we'll have a working knowledge of who the major players are. In other words, if you don't know that's former CIA Director Leon Panetta whom James Gandolfini is playing (deliciously), this is why God invented Google.

Jessica Chastain plays one of an elite group of spies and holds the screen with a feral intensity.
Jonathan Olley
Jessica Chastain plays one of an elite group of spies and holds the screen with a feral intensity.

When the raid finally comes, it's almost an anticlimax, not because we know bin Laden will be there, but because even if we didn't, Maya's unshakable faith would by now have us convinced. Still, the sequence is electrifying, and coming after the workaday ordinariness of everything that precedes it, reconfirmation of Bigelow as a master of high-tech action, from the modified Black Hawk helicopters slicing silently through the Abbottabad skies to the precisely choreographed storming of the compound itself — all of it captured in a mixture of Night Vision and pellucid HD videography by cameraman Greig Fraser. Bigelow and Boal don't overly heroicize the mission — no literal or figurative flag-waving, no ra-ra orchestral score — in part because they take the heroism to be self-evident and in part because they marvel at the smooth professionalism of the SEALs, who manage to bag bin Laden swiftly and with a minimum of collateral damage, as if it really were just another day at the office. It's only a few scenes later that Zero Dark Thirty reaches its true emotional peak, when Maya, framed in medium close-up, does something we haven't seen her do for the past two and a half hours. She exhales.

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