Verdict: Four out of five stars. Chilling and gut-wrenching, the tension never lets up, even though you already know the outcome. It’s all centred on a powerhouse performance from Jessica Chastain, helped by an outstanding supporting cast that includes James Gandolfini and Mark Strong. Historical inaccuracies/disputes aside, Zero Dark Thirty is a more than worthy tribute to one of the most painful chapters in American history. 

Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain

©Columbia Pictures

It has become a question anyone old enough to remember can answer: where were you on September 11, 2001? But the other question we inevitably ask is one that only survivors of the terror attacks and the families of the more than 3,000 victims can respond to: what was it like?

Director Kathryn Bigelow answers it for us with a painful, foreboding opening, where voice recordings of panicked individuals trapped inside the Twin Towers who dialed 911 on that day, are played against a backdrop of pitch darkness. By the time you hear the anguished voice of a woman whispering “I love you”, the significance of September 11 will be burned into your mind.

This is the story of the hunt for the terrorist Osama bin Laden, who eluded the Americans for a decade, and how they eventually caught up with him. The title itself is a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, as well as a reference to the secrecy in which the mission was conducted. Many of us will have read the accounts of how the elite special forces Seal Team Six stormed bin Laden’s hideout in Abottabad, Pakistan and killed him in 2011. Various books and first-hand accounts will also attest to the futility of the manhunt in the early years. “We’re spending billions of dollars. People are dying. We are still no closer to defeating our enemy,” rages CIA higher up George (Mark Strong), after a (real-life) suicide bombing in 2009 kills six CIA personnel in Afghanistan.

Seal Team Six hard at play ©Columbia Pictures

Seal Team Six hard at play ©Columbia Pictures

So: how accurate is it? Just as with the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty has come under criticism for seemingly playing fast and loose with the facts. The graphic scenes of torture and waterboarding will leave you shifting uncomfortably in your seat, particularly with its implication that these were the methods by which vital intelligence was obtained. But Jose Rodriguez, who was in charge of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation programme for five years, labelled the torture scenes ‘pure fiction’ in a commentary for the Washington Post. But then again, he would, wouldn’t he? Check out Bigelow’s not-quite answer when talk show host David Letterman asks if the torture scenes are accurate.

But to Bigelow’s credit, the pursuit of UBL, or bin Laden, is not resolved by some deus ex machina, for which Rodriguez did praise her. Other based-on-a-true-story movies like Munich (2007), about an Israeli team that also pursued terrorists, relied on an all-knowing (and fictional) French informant to bring the narrative forward. But with Zero Dark Thirty, the hunt is a decade-long marathon that takes its toll in lives, both literally and metaphorically. No other director can create tension quite the way Bigelow does, piecing together quiet moments interspersed with sudden acts of violence that leave you reeling. The slow burn puts you on the edge of your seat, where you will remain till the end of the movie.

©Columbia Pictures

©Columbia Pictures

Thankfully, the movie steers clear of the rah-rah, Team America histrionics. Instead, the story is anchored around a quietly intense performance from Jessica Chastain as the relentless CIA agent Maya – based on a real person – whose entire career is devoted to hunting down UBL.  This is not about the headline grabbing wars in Iraq or Afghanistan: it is the ugly, unglamorous work of endless interrogations, sifting through reams of intelligence, and chasing down leads which may turn out to be shadows. Maya often ends up having to battle bureaucracy and indifference as well. At one point, CIA station chief in Islamabad Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) tells her: “You’re chasing a ghost, while the whole f***ing network goes all around you!”

Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain plays CIA agent Maya

If the movie has a weakness, it is that there is precious little by way of characterisation. Not much is revealed about the mysterious Maya or the people around her, though this does not impede the narrative.  There is also restraint in portraying the assault on the Abottabad compound, which serves as the climax of the film. There are no Michael Bay-like explosions or physics-defying stunts, and even the final victory turns out to be a hollow one. Osama bin Laden is dead, but the global war on terror goes on, with no end in sight. There is no flag waving or cheering when the movie ends: just a sombre, quiet reflection on what fighting the murderers who want to kill them has cost America.

Zero Dark Thirty opens in Singapore today. Tell me what you think of it!