Manhunt: It took more than a decade to find and kill Osama bin Laden. “Zero Dark Thirty” is the true story of what happened from 2001-11.

/ The Daily Orange

We all know when the story begins: Sept. 11, 2001. We all know when it ends: May 2, 2011 at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In between these dates marks a historic, decade-long manhunt shrouded in secrecy, and “Zero Dark Thirty” fills in the gray area.

This tense, briskly paced thriller crams 10 years of intelligence, missions, leads and dead ends into two and a half hours, yet somehow manages to weave a logical thread between points A and B. The exhaustive search erupts in the final half-hour with the Seal Team Six raid; shot with such gripping precision it sends chills up the spine.

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”) tell the story through the eyes of the mission’s true heroes: the men and women on the ground who made it possible. The deep cast is full of honest portrayals of CIA operatives, politicians, soldiers and even terrorists. But they all pale in comparison to Jessica Chastain’s lead performance as Maya, based on a real CIA agent who was vital in tracking down bin Laden.

A historic American triumph like this begs political propaganda — for example, the rushed television-movie, “Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden” — but this is the real, unadulterated true story, and it deserves to be told.

The screen opens to black, and a radio montage begins: a plane has struck the first World Trade Center. First responders, pedestrians and workers inside the buildings react over the phone.

“It’s OK, Mom,” says one worker. “A plane crashed into building One but we’re OK, we’re in building Two.” Another plane explodes into the second building.

Two years later at a CIA black site in Pakistan: CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogates a captured terrorist named Ammar.

“If you lie to me, I hurt you,” he says. Ammar is tortured. He’s water-boarded and put in a dog collar and then a sensory deprivation box. Eventually he gives up valued information. Maya watches this play out from the corner of the room.

Chastain’s performance as Maya is, quite simply, badass — and not just because she’s often rocking aviator sunglasses. Chastain’s pale complexion swings between stone-faced determination and glaring intensity as she chases down every last lead, berating anyone whose stubborn inefficiency holds her up. As she explains to the CIA director in a high-level meeting to approve the Abbottabad raid: “I’m the motherf***er who found this place.”

The supporting cast puts bright faces on the unsung heroes of the manhunt. Aside from Clarke’s overpowering performance as Dan, other standouts are Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights” fame as Pakistani station chief Joe Bradley and James Gandolfini as CIA Director Leon Panetta. Actors like Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) and Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”) embody the Seal Team Six members with intense professionalism and crass, wide-grinning humor.

The film races methodically through eight years of intelligence work in Washington, D.C., and the Middle East as Maya and scores of others slog through the long, exasperating manhunt. They endure setback after setback — the 2005 London bombings, killed operatives, elusive terrorists and bureaucratic red tape. Then we meet the Seals, and the most famous military operation of the century is depicted in heart-pounding night vision.

As with “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow films modern warfare with an unparalleled visceral edge. Explosions burst into quiet scenes with blaring cracks like horror movies, as she entrances viewers with some of the most detailed sound effects ever captured on film. The final raid is totally immersive through gripping sound — every “whoosh” of helicopter blades, the terrified shrieks of bin Laden’s family, the low-crackling flames of the burning compound and the feeling of the harsh blowback reverberating from every gunshot.

The Best Picture nominee blends spy drama, a frustrating manhunt, political power plays, ear-splitting action and a dash of conversational humor. It comes at the story from all sides, pacing its painstaking intelligence-gathering with shocking combat and shuddering violence.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is real. It’s in your face. Bigelow and Boal have drawn flak from Congress for their depiction of graphic torture and alleged access to classified CIA files, but their meticulously researched chronicle is so powerful for just that reason — its brutal truth.


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