Opening in limited release Wednesday, director Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," a dramatized account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is already the talk of two towns. In Washington, questions have arisen about whether Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal got access to classified information (the Pentagon says they didn't), and controversy has swirled around the film's depiction of CIA torture.
Back in the land of Hollywood, meanwhile, the film is widely viewed as an award season front-runner, and initial reviews are overwhelmingly positive, praising it as a taut, complex and morally ambiguous thriller.
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan chalks up much of the film's success to Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, the dogged CIA agent whose hunch is vital to tracking down Bin Laden. Bigelow, Turan writes, "proves herself once again to be a master of heightened realism and narrative drive," and Chastain demonstrates that "she is a complete chameleon, able to vanish into a variety of roles so different from one another that the switch of persona can be disconcerting."
Boal, a former journalist, has crafted a script that is "as modern as it gets," Turan says, throwing the viewers "right into the middle of a complicated situation" and forcing them to make sense of it. The end result "is an example of cinematic storytelling at its most effective."
Variety's Peter Debruge says the film rejects "nearly every cliche one might expect from a Hollywood treatment of the subject" and "rivets for most of its running time" (over 2½ hours). Describing the film as a "procedure-driven, decade-spanning docudrama" — the much-publicized raid sequence only arrives in the film's final half-hour — Debruge agrees with Turan that Chastain "shows she has the chops to embody the pic's iron-nerved protag, holding her own in the testosterone-thick world of CIA black sites and top-level Washington boardrooms."
On the whole, Debruge concludes, "The ultra-professional result may be easier to respect than enjoy, but there's no denying its power."
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy writes that "'Zero Dark Thirty' could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal, as one keenly feels the drive of the filmmaker channeled through the intensity of Maya's character. The film's power steadily and relentlessly builds over its long course, to a point that is terrifically imposing and unshakable."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis calls "Zero Dark Thirty" "brilliantly directed," "a seamless weave of truth and drama" and "a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs." One of the "gutsy and all too rare" aspects of the film is that it trusts its audience: "[I]t is an article of faith in 'Zero Dark Thirty' that viewers are capable of filling in the blanks, managing narrative complexity and confronting their complicity," Dargis writes. She adds, "The movie shows the dark side of [the war on terror]. It shows the unspeakable and lets us decide if the death of Bin Laden was worth the price we paid."
Dana Stevens of Slate has a similar takeaway, writing, "[T]his is a vital, disturbing, and necessary film precisely because it wades straight into the swamp of our national trauma about the war on terror and our prosecution of it, and no one — either on the screen or seated in front of it — comes out clean."