Once in a while, a ripped-from-the-headlines movie, like "All The President's Men" or "United 93" fuses journalism and the oxygenated atmosphere of a thriller into a new version of history written with lightning. "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow’s meticulous and electrifying re-creation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is that kind of movie.
Early on, a Saudi Arabian terror suspect is stripped, starved, and waterboarded, and he finally offers up the name of a man, Abu Ahmed, who he claims worked as a courier for bin Laden. Part of the power of "Zero Dark Thirty" is that the movie looks, with disturbing clarity, at the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked. This is a bin Laden thriller that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney could both love.
At the same time, "Zero Dark Thirty" spins its already controversial political daring into a heady international detective thriller. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young CIA analyst who fixates on the name of the courier. The film immerses us, brilliantly, in her intellectual processes as she attempts to figure out where on earth this man could be.
Gravely alert, Chastain plays Maya as a dogged soldier of the information age whose youth and inexperience are actually an asset, since she isn't trapped in old ways of seeing. When she finally locates what may be the courier, there's a sequence in which a team of undercover agents tries to get near his cellphone, and Bigelow directs it with such supple, real-time suspense that she just about controls your heartbeat.
The raid on bin Laden’s compound is staged for maximum realism, which gives the film a thriller climax that is also an anti-thriller climax. As the Navy SEALs inch through the murky darkness, it is all staged with an eerie, diary-like calm that mirrors the no-sweat, strictly-business demeanor of the SEALs themselves. They are soldiers doing their jobs, and with awesome bravery, but "Zero Dark Thirty" is really a gripping salute to the desk warrior who spent not minutes, but years going in for the kill.