Jessica Chastain in a scene from the movie Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain in a scene from the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Jonathan Olley - Contributed by

Movie review: Zero Dark Thirty

YOU MIGHT think the story of the assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden would focus on the macho Navy Seals carrying out the covert operation.

But the heart of the story of the search for and capture of the terrorist leader is actually a woman.

The film follows CIA young gun Maya as she is stationed in Pakistan in the early years of America's military presence in Afghanistan.

Fresh off the plane from Washington, Maya receives a brutal education in the arts of torture - before many practices including water boarding were stamped out by the US government - by lead interrogator Dan (played by Jason Clarke).

The torture scenes in the beginning of the film are disturbing, and indeed some critics have interpreted them as part of the filmmakers' pro-torture stance, but they are an essential part of the story.

Without some of the information obtained through these methods, Maya would never have connected the dots which put her on the trail of trusted Bin Laden courier Abu Ahmed.

Her decade-long search for Ahmed brings the CIA's focus to the well-to-do Pakistani suburb of Abbottabad, where, somewhat unexpectedly, they find Bin Laden himself might be hiding out.

Chastain is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination for her committed portrayal of intelligence officer Maya, without whose dogged determination and ferocity, bordering on obsession, Bin Laden might not have ever been captured.

Zero Dark Thirty feels similar in many ways to director Kathryn Bigelow's 2008 Oscar winning war-time drama The Hurt Locker.

It is Bigelow's first feature film since The Hurt Locker, which won six Oscars including Best Picture over James Cameron's 3D epic Avatar, and focuses once again on America's controversial "war on terror".

The team of Navy Seals who storm Bin Laden's compound don't enter the picture until the later part of the movie.

After so much file digging and intelligence gathering, it's rewarding to finally get to the stealthy action of the night-time raid.

The Seal team features several Aussie actors: brothers Joel and Nash Edgerton and Bikie Wars star Callan Mulvey.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were the perfect people to tell this story.

Rather than feature a lot of pro-US nationalism and military chest-thumping, as Hollywood action films so often do, Zero Dark Thirty is a story of one woman's persistence in the face of managerial doubt, political in-fighting and even an assassination attempt.

We all know how it's going to end, but that doesn't make the film any less intense and dramatic.

Zero Dark Thirty opens on January 31.

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Zero Dark Thirty

  • Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Jennifer Ehle.
  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Rating: M
  • Stars: 4/5