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film review

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

"There are two narratives about the location of Osama bin Laden," says CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), the heroine of Kathryn Bigelow's new film, Zero Dark Thirty, as she briefs Navy Seals on their secret mission. The first narrative is that the al-Qaeda leader is hiding in a cave in the tribal areas of Pakistan surrounded by loyal fighters. The second, which is the story she believes, is that he's living in a compound in Abbottabad, running his worldwide terrorist network.

There are also two narratives about Zero Dark Thirty, which opened in New York and Los Angeles in December amid a tempest of controversy. The first narrative, supplied by critics from The New York Times, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and other publications, is that it's one of the best films of the year (supported by its nomination Thursday for a best-picture Oscar). In this version of the story, Zero Dark Thirty is a gripping study about people operating on the psychological edge, a high-speed, suspenseful, complex look at U.S. agents fighting back against an implacable enemy.

The other narrative is from political commentators like The New Yorker's Jane Mayer (author of the 2008 book The Dark Side, on the legal justifications and possible criminality of the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation techniques), Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who made Taxi to the Dark Side, and CNN's Peter Bergen, who wrote Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad. The criticism also comes from U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, who sent a letter, co-signed by senators Carl Levin and John McCain, to Sony Pictures that called the movie "grossly inaccurate and misleading" in suggesting that harsh interrogations produced information that led to bin Laden.

In this version, it's suggested that the CIA shaped Zero Dark Thirty as a public-relations exercise for an organization widely associated with abuses of human rights and massive intelligence failures. Writer Mark Boal and Bigelow, it's suggested, were "seduced by their sources" at the CIA.

So where does the truth lie? The American film critics, I believe, have responded generously to a complex procedural film that seems all the more serious for being coolly dispassionate rather than conventionally triumphant about the death of the USA's enemy No. 1. As a piece of film craftsmanship, it's impressive, if self-consciously thin on political context or character development. Scenes of information-dense talk among CIA agents in claustrophobic rooms and torture sheds alternate with jolts of suspense, bomb blasts and automatic weapons. Handheld camera predominates and the chapter headings and time-line suggest a documentary realism. All this wraps up in the final 40 minutes with an unnerving real-time depiction of the Navy Seal-team raid on bin Laden's compound that has the dispassionate grimness of the excision of a tumour.

At the same time, the political critics, on the whole, are closer to the mark than the film reviewers: Bigelow and Boal's film seems morally tone deaf. While the film may not glorify or endorse torture, it exercises a poetic licence that, unwittingly or not, can serve as propaganda for torture apologists. No character in the film has a qualm about inflicting suffering on prisoners in a business-as-usual world, and the obvious impression is that while torturing detainees was a dirty job, it was a stage in the education of Maya, the fearless young woman warrior who sheds propriety, overcomes obstructions and dodges death in the process of becoming the avenging figure who slays the monster.

The story begins in darkness, as we hear a montage of calls of the victims in the World Trade Center towers. A title announces that the movie is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events." The action opens two years later at a "black site," in a building that looks like a large utility shed, where a group of figures in ski masks, led by one muscular (and unmasked) man, Dan (Jason Clarke), are interrogating an Arab man, Ammar (Reda Kateb), whose face is bruised and whose arms are suspended by ropes from the ceiling.

When they step outside briefly, one of the interrogators turns out to be a slender, pale, red-haired young woman, Maya, who has just arrived. Dan tells her there's "no shame" in watching from the monitor but Maya is eager to go back to the interrogation and, now, like Dan, is willing to appear unmasked. She is briefly squeamish, folding her arms across her chest, but when Dan slams the man down and tells her to get a jug of water to water-board the prisoner, she readily complies. Later, when Ammar is subjected to being stripped, is put in a collar, walked around like a dog, or sealed in a wooden box, she doesn't flinch.

Why are these torture scenes, which occupy about 15 minutes of the first half-hour of a 157-minute film, so important? They set the post-9/11 pitiless tone, establishing Maya's bona fides to her fellow agents. And they establish the drive that brings Osama bin Laden to his death because torture is shown to work. Suffering from sleep deprivation and under threat of more torture, Ammar gives up the name of a courier close to bin Laden, known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. At the CIA's Islamabad office, in a montage, Maya looks at DVDs filled with detainee statements, some of them by men strung up like Ammar, and finds at least 20 that confirm the identity of the courier. The repetition becomes a vital link in her confidence that the courier matters.

At another "black site" in Gdansk, Poland, another detainee identifies Ahmed al-Kuwaiti as a go-between for bin Laden and Abu Faraj al-Libbi (Yoav Levi), considered al-Qaeda's third in command. When Pakistani intelligence captures Abu Faraj, Maya gets the go-ahead to interrogate him. But Abu Faraj is unco-operative (torture doesn't always work). And Maya's mentor, Dan, warns her that the political winds are shifting (it's now 2005) and torture is going out of style: "You don't want to be the last one caught holding a dog collar when your oversight committee comes."

The passage of years is signalled by notorious terrorist attacks: the 2004 Khobar massacre in Saudi Arabia, the London bus and subway bombings (2005), and the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing (2008). In the last case, we see that Maya and her rival-turned-friend (Jennifer Ehle) have met for dinner at the hotel when the bomb goes off. It's the first of a series of events when the war is brought directly to the agents. The most powerfully staged suspense sequence in the film depicts the 2009 Khost CIA-base bombing in Afghanistan, where an al-Qaeda suicide bomber, posing as a double agent, killed seven CIA agents.

That setback almost immediately stokes Maya's resolution, in a memorable line of dialogue that might have come from a Bruce Willis movie: "I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op – and then I'm going to kill bin Laden."

Not everything about Zero Dark Thirty zips by. The middle hour of the film feels overstuffed with agency chiefs and national security advisors gazing on the feisty Maya with avuncular admiration. There are times when the filmmakers seem to realize that in the midst of the back-and-forth between jargon-filled exposition and explosive action, they need to give the strong cast a chance for some drama.

Ultimately, the mission seems to be more about Maya than the collective cause. When other characters aren't informing us of her special dedication ("Washington says she's a killer"), she takes the time to say it herself. At one point, she tells a special-operations soldier that she believes she was "spared to finish this job."

It's Maya's struggle, Maya's triumph and eventually Maya's tears as the mission comes to a close. Does she weep because there's now a bin Laden-sized hole in her life, or for the soul she has lost? It's a welcome note of ambiguity in a film that cuts corners in a disturbing fashion. No doubt Zero Dark Thirty serves a function by airing America's dirty laundry about detainee and torture programs, but in its wake, there's a crying need for a compassionate Coming Home to counter its brutal Deer Hunter.

What's left out matters. For anyone who has read the stories of wrongly detained and tortured men like the kidnapped and tortured Canadian engineer Maher Arar, or the German car salesman Khaled El-Masri, who recently won a settlement from the European Court of Human Rights, Maya's tears seen misplaced.