Movie Review: 'Zero Dark Thirty' starts slow, ends with a bang

Al Alexander

The first half of Kathryn Bigelow’s comprehensive chronicling of the 10-year pursuit of Osama bin Laden will almost surely Tora-bore ya. But the back end of her much ballyhooed “Zero Dark Thirty” will render you rapturously awed and amazed. Yet it’s those languorous opening 75 minutes that have stirred all the controversy over the role torture played in the world’s most extensive manhunt.

Bigelow (an Oscar-winner for “The Hurt Locker”) almost depravedly allows her camera to linger for long stretches on a bound prisoner being beaten, waterboarded and otherwise dehumanized. It’s tough to watch, which I’m sure is the point. And it’s screenwriter Mark Boal’s contention that the seemingly endless physical and mental abuse yields information that proves invaluable. But prominent politicians privy to the CIA’s secret files say those tactics yielded squat. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., even go so far as to say the intel given by the al-Qaeda prisoner depicted was retrieved before “enhanced interrogation” even began.

Either way, Bigelow overstates her point while understating the narrative by reducing the first half of her movie to the level of a clinical debriefing. There’s no drama, no fire and a minimal level of intrigue. It leaves you cold, detached and uninvolved. The aloofness with which Jessica Chastain portrays the case’s fiery-haired chief investigator, known only as Maya, only deepens the remove, as she and her chief interrogator, the bright and brutish Dan (a terrific Jason Clarke), torture and sleuth their way down a labyrinth of mostly dead-end leads. Adding to the tedium is the film’s insistence on needlessly reminding us that terrorists also attacked several other targets in the wake of 9/11, including the London subway in 2005. All of it stuff most people already know.

The pace quickens and the suspense intensifies, however, beginning with a terrifying re-enactment of the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, a strike that Maya and her only apparent confident, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), barely escape. From that point on, you’ll struggle to catch your breath, as the tension builds exponentially with every step Maya and her Langley colleagues, including Kyle Chandler as the head of the Pakistani office, take closer to their prey. But the real payoff comes with the film’s thrilling climax – SEAL Team 6’s midnight raid on bin Laden’s fortified compound. It lasts about 30 minutes, and you won’t see a more dazzling action sequence in your life.

Maya, too, grows more interesting, especially after seven of her coworkers fall victim to an al-Qaeda ambush in Afghanistan. Suddenly, Chastain and her character pop vibrantly to life, as Maya’s nearly decade-long hunt for bin Laden becomes intensely personal. And the way Chastain portrays Maya’s growing frustration toward her procrastinating male bosses is so electric, you can’t help but share in her outrage. It’s very much the same feeling you get watching that other female CIA operative, Claire Dane’s Carrie from “Homeland,” whenever she runs up against sexist superiors.

Maya prevails in the end, of course, but not before we see her resorting to copious amounts of arm twisting in trying to convince CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) to sign off on the raid. And when that approval finally comes – more than 100 days after bin Laden’s whereabouts are pinpointed – it’s downright exhilarating, particularly once the raid commences on that fateful night of May, 1, 2011. Bigelow unflinchingly depicts the meticulously planned operation in an involving, you-are-there night vision that duly honors the bravery of the SEALs and the workmanlike manner in which they carried out their mission. Even better, it provides a much needed catharsis for what was done to nearly 3,000 innocent Americans at the behest of a mass-murdering religious zealot. And if seeing bin Laden’s bloodied corpse zipped up in a body bag fills you with national pride, don’t feel ashamed, because it’s something we, as a people, richly deserved, even if it was a long time coming.

“Zero Dark Thirty” opens today in Boston and Cambridge and on Jan. 11 in the suburbs.

Zero Dark Thirty (R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.) Cast includes Jessica Chastain, James Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler and Jason Clarke. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Grade: B+