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'Zero Dark Thirty' features stunning final hour

REVIEW: The best hour of filmmaking you'll see all year is the final hour of Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," which has to be considered a favorite to take home this year's best picture Oscar.

It's easy to find reasons not to go to the film, which is hardly a light night out at the movies or an ideal date flick. It's long -- pushing two hours, forty minutes. The film's controversial torture scenes have been widely discussed, and they are indeed difficult to watch -- detainees are waterboarded, strapped into dog collars, shoved into tiny boxes. And even before those scenes, the film reminds us what started it all by playing gut-wrenching phone calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center after it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. "I'm going to die, aren't I?" one woman asks a helpless 911 operator.

Heavy stuff. Heavy, heartbreaking stuff. And not a movie for everyone. But "Zero Dark Thirty" is a majestic piece of filmmaking and like Bigelow's earlier Oscar-winner "The Hurt Locker," delves into a world that few Americans can even imagine. For most of us, the hunt for Osama bin Laden seemed for years like a fruitless quest, painful and frustrating when we thought about it, but not something that was constantly top of mind. But to the CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain (named Maya in the film), bin Laden was all she thought about, all the time.

Wrote critic Roger Ebert of the film, " There isn't a whole lot of plot -- basically, just that Maya thinks she is right, and she is." She is indeed, and the film manages to build on her slow gathering of evidence into a Jenga-like pile of information, with missteps along the way. Even though you know bin Laden was at the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound, even though you know he was killed there by Navy SEALs in 2011, it's to the film's credit that events feel like they hang in doubt even once that dramatic final hour begins.

Chastain makes Maya feel like a real person, faults and all. She's not your typical suave James Bond-like spy. You're not sure you'd like her if you knew her, an opinion that's backed up by a great Washington Post piece about the real agent. (“Do you know how many CIA officers are jerks?” the paper quotes a source as saying. “If that was a disqualifier, the whole National Clandestine Service would be gone.”) She has a theory to which she is devoted, but always she carries with her the knowledge that she has seen friends die for similar devotion. 

Maya's challenges, though, only make the build towards the inevitable raid on the Abbottabad compound all the more dramatic. There's a trip to Area 51 (really!) to examine the special helicopters that'll be used, which allows Maya to meet the SEALs who'll be risking their lives because of her beliefs. ("I wanted to drop a bomb," she tells them sourly.)

Once the SEALs, and the Belgian Malinois dog they take along, climb into those two helicopters, it's impossible to take your eyes off the screen, or even breathe. Maya can only watch from the base, knowing their lives are in danger whether she's right or wrong, and that failure will be devastating. The attack itself may not be what you expected. The compound is cramped and dangerous, with threats around every corner and terrified women and children caught up in the raid. One of the helicopters crashes and must be destroyed, bin Laden's computer hard drives and journals must be shoved into bags, and the Pakistanis have scrambled their F-16s to investigate what the heck is going on. In the middle of the mayhem, a SEAL appears dazed, and when asked what's wrong, simply says, "I just shot the guy on the third floor." And all that's come before, the 9/11 phone calls, the torture, the deaths in the pursuit of other theories, all come down to the guy on the third floor.

In addition to Chastain, Bigelow gets marvelous performances from Jason Clark, whose fabulous performance in Showtime's "Brotherhood" is often overlooked; James Gandolfini, as likable and terrifying as Tony Soprano was; and Kyle Chandler, always so good whenever he's onscreen. At one point, Chandler's character tells Maya, "I don't (expletive) care about bin Laden! Protect the homeland!" Which is, of course, precisely what she thought she was doing.

"Zero Dark Thirty" opened in New York and Los Angeles in December to qualify for the Academy Awards, adds more cities on Jan. 4, and opens in still more locations on Jan. 11.

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