Mesmerising performance from Chastain worthy of an Oscar
Zero Dark Thirty (15)
The political brouhaha that continues to dog Kathryn Bigelow's dramatisation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden might have cost her an Oscar nomination.
Her surprising omission from the Best Director race, which she won three years ago with The Hurt Locker, could be a knee-jerk reaction to outspoken US senators who have lambasted Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of CIA-sanctioned torture.
The film makes clear: everything in Mark Boal's script is "based on firsthand accounts of actual events".
Harrowing scenes of interrogation behind closed doors pose timely questions about the extraction of information during the war against terror.
Is it possible to exist in a world that communicates in acts of senseless violence without resorting to the same crude vocabulary?
As CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) tells one physically exhausted prisoner (Reda Kateb), "In the end, everybody breaks. It's biology."
Zero Dark Thirty opens in total darkness with a soundscape of emotionally wrought telephone calls and emergency service broadcasts from September 11, 2001.
Two years later, ballsy CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) accepts a posting to Islamabad under Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler).
Dan worries the newcomer might not be up to the task at hand.
"You don't think she's a little young for the hard stuff?" he asks Bradley.
"Washington says she's a killer," coolly replies the Station Chief.
Maya imposes herself on the team, which initially creates friction with colleagues Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Larry (Edgar Ramirez) and Steve (Mark Duplass).
Over the next eight years, including a chilling recreation of the 2005 suicide attacks on London, Maya dedicates her life to every scrap of intelligence which might lead her to bin Laden.
Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (Tushaar Mehra), who reportedly operates as bin Laden's personal courier, becomes her focus and the CIA tracks him to a heavily guarded compound in Abbottabad.
Maya is certain she has found bin Laden but her superiors are cautious.
"A lot of my friends have died to do this. I believe I was spared so I could finish the job," she argues defiantly.
Taking its title from the time Navy SEALs stormed the compound in Pakistan, Zero Dark Thirty replays recent history through the eyes of Chastain's tenacious operative.
It is a mesmerising central performance, worthy of the Oscar nomination, revealing chinks of sadness and vulnerability beneath Maya's armour as she spearheads the biggest manhunt in American history.
Bigelow orchestrates action sequences with brio, letting loose the dogs of modern warfare.
During the climatic night-time raid, which is shot in part through night-vision goggles, the knot of tension in our stomachs tightens with each passing minute, until we're holding our breaths, even though we know this page in history was written in the early hours of May 2, 2011.