‘Zero Dark Thirty’ presents an unflinching look at the mission to find bin Laden

Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty

"The Hurt Locker" was a stark, uncompromising, and non-political examination of the Iraq War, and its gritty depiction of the conflict helped it earn six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film created a remarkable level of tension and unease as it followed bomb disposal techs as they risked life and limb to defuse improvised explosives. Now, the Oscar-winning director and screenwriter are back with another plucked-from-the-headlines story, and this one might be even more polarizing and tough to watch.

"Zero Dark Thirty" tells the story of the decade-long mission to find Osama bin Laden, going into the shadowy world of intelligence operatives to uncover how the largest manhunt in history went down. And director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal don't shy away from depicting the "enhanced interrogation" techniques like waterboarding that were used along the way. "The new movie is not for the faint of heart or for those expecting typical Hollywood fare," is how The New York Times put it. And it's not just for the clear-eyed depiction of torture, but also what The Hollywood Reporter describes as "its denial of conventional emotionalism and non-gung ho approach to cathartic revenge-taking."

In Richard Corliss's review in Time Magazine, he describes a scene where a captured suspect, held in a CIA "black site," is pushed to the edge by being deprived of food, bombarded with ear-splitting noise, and submitted to waterboarding. His interrogator tells him "In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It's biology." And while scenes of torture have become commonplace in spy stories like "Casino Royale" and TV's "24," the impact here is far greater not only for reopening a still-painful wound inflicted on the nation, but because the film is entirely based on the firsthand accounts of the people who were involved.

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When asked about the interrogation scenes by Entertainment Weekly, Boal said, "It's part of the history, and we wanted to show the history... You try to be faithful to the research." Boal, who was a print journalist and author before becoming a screenwriter, spent years interviewing personnel who were directly involved with the search. Names and personal details were changed in some cases to protect sources who are still clandestine operatives, but the facts of the case are meticulously researched. Director Bigelow said the when it came to depicting torture, "There's no question it was difficult, but to deny it would have been to be inaccurate."

Jessica Chastain
Jessica Chastain

Just as "The Hurt Locker" was focused on servicemen on the ground in Iraq, "Zero Dark Thirty" is more focused on the individuals working on the manhunt than the greater political forces at work. That means presidents Bush and Obama are not featured in the film as characters (Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA at the time, is played on screen by James Gandolfini). The main character is a CIA agent called Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, who was a major player in the search for bin Laden, though her actual identity remains a secret. Maya witnesses the prisoner being interrogated, and Peter Debruge of Variety reports that Chastian appears, "clearly uncomfortable with the waterboarding and sexual humiliation that were common practice in the morally hazy rendition era." But when the captive pleads with her for help, she replies, "You can help yourself by being truthful."

Boal and Bigelow were readying a script about the search for bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora when news broke that the fugitive terrorist leader had been killed in Pakistan. They had to completely throw out the screenplay they had and start another from page one. The resulting script culminates in the raid by Navy SEAL Team Six on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, and according to early reviews, it is a tense, methodical sequence made all the more impressive by the fact that you know exactly how it will end.

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Bigelow shot the raid in a full-scale recreation of the compound built especially for the production in Jordan. The crew attempted to re-enact the operation as close to the actual event as possible, and that included filming in what Bigelow said was "not just night photography, it's no-light photography. You're in an environment that's pitch-black." In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy said the sequence, with its green night-vision look and precise execution, invokes "a feeling of being suspended in time that's unlike any equivalent climactic action sequence that comes to mind."

This is the second high-profile film based on a true, top-secret CIA event this year, after Ben Affleck's "Argo." Both are predicted to be top Oscar contenders, but Time Magazine's review of "Zero Dark Thirty" said it "blows ["Argo"] out of the water." The Hollywood Reporter said of the film, "it could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal." Variety was respectful but not quite as effusive: "The ultra-professional result may be easier to respect than enjoy, but there's no denying its power."

"Zero Dark Thirty" will open in limited release on December 19, and will be in theaters nationwide on January 11. Check back with Yahoo! Movies on Wednesday morning to see an exclusive first look at a clip from the film.

Watch trailers for 'Zero Dark Thirty':

'Zero Dark Thirty' Teaser Trailer 'Zero Dark Thirty' Teaser Trailer 2