Last February, a movie titled Act of Valor came and went from theatres. Its main cast consisted of active-duty Navy SEALs playing heroes out to stop a terrorist plot. The reasoning of the filmmakers was that the presence of real-life soldiers would lend the movie a veracity lacking from Hollywood product.
Of course, the precise opposite was true. None of the film's non-actors was especially engaging, but the film's more abject failure was that the good-guy-vs.-bad-guy plot was very much a Hollywood construct, as dully contrived as a mid-'80s Chuck Norris movie.
The obvious rationale behind the film was to exploit widespread admiration for the SEALs in the wake of their killing terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
In a higher realm of filmmaking, the hunt for bin Laden was a sufficiently fascinating subject that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) were already engaged in making a movie about it -- before history gave them an ending on May 1, 2011.
It is interesting to consider what Bigelow's film would have been if the CIA had failed in its mission to get the figure they referred to as "UBL" -- if it would have been made at all.
In any case, the gist of Zero Dark Thirty is that war has changed and, with apologies to the folks behind Act of Valor, war movies must change too.
Bigelow's film is a scrupulously wrought delineation of 21st-century warfare in the era of terrorism. Bigelow described the boots-on-the-ground experience in The Hurt Locker. This movie is about war as it is conducted in far-flung intelligence field offices, or in the dark corners of the world where prisoners are subject to brutal interrogations.
That is where a novice agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) finds herself two years after the 9/11 attacks, observing a water-boarding session between the gruff agent called Dan (Jason Clarke) and a suspect (Reda Kateb) whose fingerprints are all over money paid to the 9/11 terrorists.
(The beginning of the film starts in darkness, with a kind of aural collage consisting of scraps of sound from that fateful day, a sombre reminder of the motivating force behind the hunt for bin Laden.)
Maya is sickened, but not to the extent that she doesn't use whatever information arises from the torture session. She doggedly seizes on a spectral figure said to be bin Laden's courier. If she can find him, she can find bin Laden.
But that process turns out to be an arduous one. Information comes in scraps that are, by turns, maddeningly sparse, contradictory or just plain deceptive. Years go by. Agents are lost. Targets are demanded.
Bigelow and Boal based the figure of Maya on a real CIA analyst, but trying to ascertain what is true and what is fictional in this movie would be as exasperating as the search for bin Laden himself.
It certainly feels authentic in the details, whether depicting an interrogation at a "black site," a grudging friendship that develops between Maya and a fellow female analyst (Jennifer Ehle), or in the film's fascinating final half hour, a depiction of the assault on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, depicted in relentless real time.
Chastain provides a centre for the film against formidable odds. While admirable for her superhuman strength of purpose, Maya is not exactly a sympathetic figure and indeed, we don't really have a handle on her back story until well past the film's halfway mark.
But the centre holds. Chastain offers enough flashes of passion and purpose to suggest a troubled but highly motivated character beneath what might have been portrayed as just another icy female careerist.
Bigelow's film is so compellingly real that we do not begrudge the fact the character is as much an enigma at the end of the film as she is in the beginning.
As war movies need to be redefined, perhaps so too do heroes.
Excerpts of select reviews of Zero Dark Thirty:
"It shines with the integrity and decency of its central figure: a fierce young woman who's both dedicated and brainy, demanding and brazen."
-- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
"There's an emotional detachment to the film that undercuts its potency. Zero Dark Thirty is more technically proficient than emotionally involving."
-- Claudia Puig, USA Today
"You know you're watching a movie when what was doubtless a tremendously tedious process in real life is made as exciting as all get-out. This salute to what one character calls 'big breaks and the little people who make them happen' is an example of cinematic storytelling at its most effective."
-- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
"Movies must move, and this one just lies there like a stack of paper from a classified government filing cabinet. Like The Hurt Locker, the previous film by the overrated team of writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, it's not really a movie."
-- Rex Reed, New York Observer