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Jessica Chastain, center, plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devote themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty." (Jonathan Olley / Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc)
‘Zero Dark ThirTy’
Rated R for violence.
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum on the use of torture in the war on terrorism, it's hard to imagine anyone exposed to a graphic waterboarding not being changed by the experience, at least a little.
"Zero Dark Thirty" provides such an experience — recent American history that is rough, raw, unflinching and tough to stomach.
First, though, the pump must be primed. And so we get audio (no image, just black screen) of calls from inside the Twin Towers on 9/11, staking a visceral claim on our nerves.
Once we've established who the enemy is, we jump ahead two years to a black site where an old CIA field hand named Dan (Aussie actor Jason Clarke) is laying waste to a midlevel al-Qaida operative with a wet cloth and a pitcher of water.
It's nothing less than the "systematic breaking of a man." As the guy goes about drowning, in the background nervously hovers Maya (Jessica Chastain), an alleged superstar agent out of Washington sent into the field on the cold trail of Osama bin Laden.
Maya — the character is based on a real field operative who remains on active duty, under cover — quickly develops a thicker skin and is soon in the game, trading jibes and spycraft with her fellow agents, like veteran Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), a cocky old-school torpedo.
The narrative sort of bobs and weaves along the twisted path of clashes between the West and al-Qaida over the past decade-plus, such as the London bus bombings in 2005 and the Marriott Hotel bombings in Pakistan in 2008.
But when a suicide bomber gets seven CIA agents in one shot right in Pakistan, Maya starts taking things personally. "I'm gonna smoke everyone involved in this op," she growls, "and then I'm gonna kill bin Laden."
Eventually, Maya puzzles out intel that leads to the infamous compound in Abbottabad, and to the conclusion that a high-value target who may or may not be bin Laden is hiding inside.
Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta (a droll James Gandolfini) wants to know everyone's analysis. Most say there's a 60 percent chance bin Laden is inside, one says 80 percent.
"One hundred percent," Maya blurts.
Panetta grins. And the operation is a go.
The climactic raid is beautifully done. The spec-ops ninjas creep up to the house on cat's paws, green scope lights casting an eerie glow, and all you hear is their breathing.
They violently access the compound; the ensuing operation drags on for dangerously long minutes through the crash of one of the super-secret transport birds and the growing attention of nearby residents who begin to gather on rooftops.
Two grunts reach the top floor and crouch in a stairwell, their night-vision goggles glowing eerily. One whispers … "Osama."
A flash of white robe, an M4's pop, pop, pop, and the scourge of early 21st-century America drops like a sack of cornmeal, without word or fight.
The cowboy who pulled the trigger is in a bit of shock about his deed, even after a pal says, "You know what you did here, right?"
Oh yeah, we know.
The word goes back to base, to Maya: "Geronimo."
It's over, except for the odd ritual of the returning birds, carrying the men and their macabre cargo. As the on-site subject matter expert, Maya gets the honor of positively identifying the remains.
The final shot, which lingers a long few moments, is a stirring testament to Maya's long, surreal, emotional quest to bag the biggest bad guy.