Given the intense praise and criticism swirling around "Zero Dark Thirty," it seems like the riveting Oscar hopeful has been in theaters everywhere for the past month.

Not so. Frustratingly, the dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden film has played in just a handful of cities. And when it finally opens in limited release in the Bay Area this weekend and then expands nationwide Jan. 11, it will come lugging some heavy baggage. Expectations are high, but so is the controversy over its excruciating depictions of torture.

As more see it, expect the debate, outrage and superlatives to continue.

Jessica Chastain (center) plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in
Jessica Chastain (center) plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty." (Jonathan Olley)

Beyond the lively discourse about "Zero Dark Thirty" and its torture scenes, there's no denying it's one of the year's boldest and best-made films, especially from a technical standpoint. It's also one of the most intense, from its opening on a dark screen with audio re-creating the chaos and horror of 9/11 to the final moments when Navy SEALs slay bin Laden.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow with her trademark air of detachment and penned by Mark Boal, who writes with crackling intelligence, "Zero Dark Thirty" makes us flies on the wall during the relentless, dogged pursuit of the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, massacre. It's the same team that collaborated on best-picture-winning "The Hurt Locker," and their documentarylike styles mesh seamlessly.


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"Locker," the 2008 film with Jeremy Renner that focused on a military bomb detonation expert in the Iraq War, courted its own controversy, with some tagging it as pro war. I never saw it that way, nor do I see "Zero Dark Thirty" as advocating for the use of torture. The scenes are so brutal and horrific that it doesn't seem possible.

As was the case with "Locker," to watch "Zero" is to enter a minefield. Once again, the story focuses on a lead character -- in this case Jessica Chastain's CIA agent Maya -- who, intentionally, is not given a long back story. We watch her journey from a relatively new agent in 2003 to one obsessed with a pursuit that exacts a huge personal toll. The role, as written by Boal, somewhat reflects America's odyssey -- from shock and anger to a demand for justice -- during this volatile time.

Chastain is tremendous in the part, never overplaying her ferocious sense of purpose as she pinpoints bin Laden's whereabouts. But you can feel it's there. In a confrontation with her CIA boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights") in Islamabad, you can practically feel the heat of her seething passion. Chandler's all-American looks are well-suited for the part, and his reaction to Maya's single-mindedness matches our own shock.

Chastain is equally effective during the controversial torture and interrogation of an al-Qaida detainee at the hands of another CIA operative named Dan (Jason Clarke of "Lawless"). Her initial revulsion mirrors ours, and those scenes are the movie's most disturbing elements. While not gratuitous, they're harrowing -- as they should be -- to watch, as Clarke's character Dan humiliates, strips and waterboards the detainee.

The film, which states it's based on firsthand accounts, has come under fire especially over these scenes, with elected officials saying they're inaccurate and that torture did not lead to the slaying of bin Laden. "Zero's" production notes call the film "neither a work of fiction nor a documentary" and indicate that Boal was inspired by the New Journalism style that took root in the '60s and '70s.

A scene from "Zero Dark Thirty" depicting the raid on the compound where Osama bin Laden was living.
A scene from "Zero Dark Thirty" depicting the raid on the compound where Osama bin Laden was living. (Columbia Pictures)

Understandably, the questions about the veracity of this depiction of sanctioned brutality on the big screen has aroused concern and fueled more debate.

But Bigelow's story doesn't come off as an endorsement of any ideology -- instead it's a startling, pulse-pounding thriller. The final moments in which Navy SEALs take over the compound where bin Laden is hiding is a stunning feat of direction, with Bigelow incorporating a night-vision glasses perspective. It will leave you breathless.

While Maya and a host of other governmental figures, including her primary CIA boss (Mark Strong) at Langley; a surveillance expert (Edgar Ramirez); CIA head Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini); and a CIA analyst (Jennifer Ehle) play pivotal roles, it's the character of Dan that's most intriguing. His disillusionment after interrogating so many detainees creates a lasting impression, and Clarke conveys his character's complexity with skill and precision.

But this is truly Bigelow's film. She's made a powerhouse of a thriller, one that will elicit various visceral reactions destined to spawn debates. Even the closing shot is open to interpretation; some will read an agenda into it, others will view it quite literally. Creating such a scenario demonstrates there's not just a talented filmmaker at the helm, but one who's truly bold and fearless as well.

'Zero Dark Thirty'

* * * *

Rating: R (for language and strong violence including
brutal, disturbing images)
Cast: Jessica Chastain,
Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Running time: 2 hours,
37 minutes