“Zero Dark Thirty” finds the mark

The latest military drama “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is centered on what the film bills as the “greatest manhunt in history.” Osama bin Laden, former leader of jihadist organization al-Qaida, was America’s most wanted man for his perpetration of terrorist attacks against the U.S. and it took a 10-year search to find him.

Bigelow’s latest film examines and reflects on the tantalizing search that gripped intelligence officials for a decade, utilizing flashbacks of key intelligence events that jump forward to further the plot.

The film’s protagonist is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA intelligence officer who starts her journey partnered with CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) to spearhead the bin Laden manhunt. Maya accompanies Dan to “black sites,” used to house and torture prisoners in order to find out more information about al-Qaida and its extensive branches of operatives.

In discussing Bigelow’s film, it is impossible to not address these torture scenes, portraying waterboarding and other disturbing methods of inflicting pain. These are no-holds-barred depictions of persecution and, as the film suggests, were critical in eventually leading the U.S. to bin Laden.

But it is these implications that have stirred up the most controversy and criticism of Bigelow and the film. Bigelow is quite familiar with such dissension, getting herself in hot water for her portrayal of American soldiers in “The Hurt Locker,” which eventually won the Academy Award for best picture in 2010.

One of the most prominent public figures to step forward and censure the film has been Sen. John McCain, who himself spent five and a half years as a prisoner in the Vietnam War, enduring brutal torture from his North Vietnamese captors. He strongly condemns torture because of his own experiences and claims “enhanced interrogation techniques … actually produced false and misleading information,” never benefiting the CIA’s investigation.

Regardless of the film’s alleged inaccuracies, the plot is engaging and propels the viewer on a rollercoaster ride through the CIA’s innumerable dead ends and uncovered leads throughout the decade. Chastain is especially brilliant playing her character’s fiery motivation to track down bin Laden, endlessly prodding her CIA bosses to take more aggressive action. Her portrayal of Maya truly accentuates the intense dedication this woman had to her mission, someone otherwise unable to receive official credit or have her identity revealed because of the operation’s confidentiality. Chastain undoubtedly earns her Golden Globe win for best dramatic actress.

Eventually, bin Laden’s stronghold in Pakistan is discovered and the U.S. Navy SEAL team’s raid is ordered on May 2, 2011. In a riveting, night vision-laden sequence, the “SEAL Team 6” moves in and carries out its elimination of bin Laden. Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton play their roles as SEAL Team members competently, highlighting the selflessness and professionalism of these courageous men.

Maya’s single exhalation after the mission is carried out speaks volumes to the enormity of the operation. Ten years of her life were spent tracking down a single, evil man, and in a fitting summation of the entire process, Chastain’s powerful sense of relief and exhaustion emanates off the screen.

A cinematic, thrilling film, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a worthy best picture contender. Though it lost to Ben Affleck’s “Argo” at the Golden Globes, look for Bigelow to recapture her second Academy Award for best picture in as many films.