DVD Release Date: March 19, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: December 19, 2012 limited; January 11, 2013 wide
Rating: R (for strong violence including brutal disturbing images and torture, and for strong language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 157 min
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle

On May 2, 2011, at "zero dark thirty" (military jargon for an unspecified time between midnight and dawn), U.S. forces raided the secret Pakistani compound of Osama bin Laden, resulting in the death of the terrorist mastermind.  President Obama gave the order. SEAL Team Six killed him. But it was one woman who got him.

It’s fitting, then, that the story of this woman – whose identity as an undercover operative may never be known in our lifetimes – would be told by a woman. Indeed, to the extent future generations comprehend not only this gutsy agent’s mission but, broader still, the War on Terror – in both its macro scope and personal scale – they will in large part have Kathryn Bigelow to thank for it. 

In two films, along with her screenwriting/research collaborator Mark Boal (who shares equal credit in contributing to historical posterity), director Bigelow has given us a dramatized yet veracious record of both fronts in the Terror War. 2009’s Oscar-winning thriller The Hurt Locker recreated the harrowing experience of being a soldier in Iraq (and, by extension, Afghanistan). Now in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow takes us to the other front, the one being fought by undercover CIA agents, interrogators, and special-ops. The one upon which the greatest manhunt in our nation’s history – the search for Osama bin Laden – took place

The film opens with a black screen for a minute or so as we hear an audio collage from September 11, 2001. Screams and cries are heard, sirens, news broadcasts, and fearful 911 pleas that we know will not be answered. It’s an abrupt and disturbing way to start, but it does the job of clearing whatever mental palette you’ve entered the theater with, calibrates you to a proper emotional and moral context for everything that will follow, and does so in a way that reveres rather than exploits the memory of those lost.

From there, Bigelow and Boal condense the 10-year hunt into a near-miraculous three-act structure that immerses us into the process, procedurally and psychologically. The hour-plus first act covers the most terrain, the initial eight years in which information was largely gathered through interrogations. For most of the second hour we zero in on the final two years as the hunt goes from tedious leads and wild goose chases to locking in on a likely target. Then the final thirty-minute stretch takes us through the actual mission itself in near-real time.

The journey begins for us in one of those clandestine interrogations, the first of several that cover in disturbing detail the most controversial techniques, including but not limited to: stress positions, sleep depravation, and most infamously, water-boarding. The film neither approves nor condemns these practices; it simply documents.

This is also where we first meet Maya (Jessica Chastain, The Debt), the alias for the woman who would become the unrelenting force behind the decade-long pursuit, as she is shaken by the quasi-sadistic techniques employed by the interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke, Lawless, in a career-making performance of chilling resolve and conflicted humanity). "Everybody breaks, bro,” he tells an al-Qaeda prisoner, “that’s biology.”