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Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is the best movie that I've seen in 2013. The story is gripping, the acting is outstanding, and you walk away feeling that you've witnessed something significant and moving.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, an intelligence officer obsessed with finding Usama Bin Laden ("UBL"). Maya spends about ten years of her life chasing various meandering leads, pressing her superiors to follow her research and hunches, and finally, as we know, all the zealous effort results in a monumental and historical raid and kill. Chastain is great as Maya; you won't recognize her in comparison to her performance as the ditzy, blond stay-at-home wife in The Help. The access that the filmmakers must have had to CIA and other intelligence personnel to create Maya's character made the story and character true to form, even if some of it turns out to be false.
The torture scenes during the first � of the film are over-hyped. I was expecting much worse. By today's movie violence standards, the torture was tame and not gruesome. The unwarranted controversy that Zero Dark Thirty has created stems from the implication that torture led to information, which led to UBL's comeuppance. That implication is clear, but I did not walk away thinking that this film condones torture or "enhanced interrogation techniques." On the contrary, later in the film it becomes clear that the intelligence community's use of such tactics has been criticized publicly and politically, actually jeopardizing the license to conduct an all-out manhunt by any means. To say that a message of this film is that "torture works" is incorrect.
UBL is only in a few minutes of this film, but Maya's obsession with finding him makes him a of pot of gold or trophy. We learn a lot about how Al Qaeda ran its operations in the 2000s, relying upon some very primitive means of communication (basically person-to-person) to spread messages between key operatives and their underlings. UBL was at the top, but he was in deep hiding for years after 9/11. The interspersing of scenes of other terrorist acts linked to or credited to Al Qaeda builds the drama and importance of bagging the trophy, UBL.
The portrayal of the raid of UBL's fortress in Pakistan is brilliantly executed. It is believable. It is terrifying. It is, ultimately, gratifying. Knowing that things went wrong during the raid (a helicopter crash, for instance), leaving the top folks in U.S. government on pins and needles for dozens of harrowing, nail-biting minutes, this portion of the film has a tinge of dread throughout. You are just waiting for a Navy Seal to get shot, stabbed, or maimed. When they "get their man," the reactions of relief, disbelief, pride, and a continued focus on completing the mission are great acting and filmmaking.
See this film. It may not be a History Channel documentary and, therefore, its accuracy is not beyond question, but as entertainment it is top notch. You can't ask much more of your movie than to build human drama, create procedural suspense, and execute fast-moving action in a carefully constructed package.