Deep down Zero Dark Thirty is a heady movie-going experience. It’s gripping and thrilling and, in a few rare spots, funny. But I should say that I had no interest in seeing this movie, about the long and arduous hunt for Osama bin Laden, when the first trailer was released. The idea of putting myself through the mental and moral loops the story promised (and fulfilled) did not sound like a fun night at the movies. A tense two-and-a-half hours after I reluctantly took my seat, the first words out of my mouth in the theater, which was more or less blanketed in a stunned silence, were “holy shit.”

Zero Dark Thirty is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the same duo responsible for 2009’s Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker. Zero Dark Thirty spans nine years, from the September 11 terrorist attacks to the capture of Osama bin Laden. It opens with Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA officer, using “interrogation tactics” on a suspected terrorist with links to Osama bin Laden. Dan has a tired, haggard face and a scraggly beard. He uses casual phrases like “bro” and alternates between gruff threats and a soothing tone that manages to sound even scarier. If you find yourself bloodied with your hands tied behind the back of a chair, this is not the “bro” you want to mess with.

The torture segments don’t consume the movie, but there’s enough (waterboarding, putting a man in a dog collar and walking him around on all fours, shoving him into a box the size of an airline carry-on container) to make you uncomfortable and get the point across that this stuff apparently happened. These scenes have received considerable press, and how their effectiveness has been perceived by the viewing public (argued by some to be presented as the means to which we started connecting the dots to Osama, and by others as just one of the facets in this manhunt) is reason enough to see the movie, if only so you can form your own opinion on the matter.

Dan isn’t alone in his "interrogations." In the shadows lurks a mousy woman with a bull dog’s bite, Maya, played by Academy Award-nominated Jessica Chastain. Eventually the stress of interrogations becomes too much for Dan, and he shaves his beard and more or less fades away from the picture. So it is Maya who takes over and who guides us through the rest of the movie, following leads, half-leads and hunches in an obsessive drive to capture bin Laden.

Chastain's Maya runs the show, but Zero Dark Thirty features a deep and talented cast. In addition to Clarke and Chastain, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle and Chris Pratt all play supporting roles of varying degrees, and they’re introduced at just the right moment to give this movie a boost when it seems like it’s about to lag.

Eventually Zero Dark Thirty gets frustrating. The clock keeps ticking and Maya and co. seem to be making no headway. But when the movie reaches its final act, with Pratt and the rest of his Navy Seals invading what is believed to be bin Laden’s hideout, the buildup is worth it. For these ending scenes, Bigelow alternates using minimal light and a night-vision filter. In both instances it's difficult to see what's going on, and I think that's the point, because in the end Bigelow manages to get everyone in the theater, including a viewer like me who wanted nothing to do with her movie, leaning forward on the edge of their seats, trying to get a better look.

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