What an ambitious and risky task director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have at hand with their new film “Zero Dark Thirty.” Among other things, probably the greatest problem it faces is the fact that we know how the story ends. 

We know that Osama bin Laden was eventually found and killed by the Navy Seal Team Six. A different director might have focused the movie on that Navy Seal raid, which no doubt would have been the easiest approach but also would have been the narrowest and the most monotone. 

The challenge is trying to make the events that come before interesting and worthwhile, taking the grueling 10-year CIA manhunt and molding it into a compelling thriller. But Bigelow and Boyal are up for the challenge as “Zero Dark Thirty” is an expertly paced, expertly balanced, intimate and all-around-exciting picture, dealing with a controversial but relevant subject. 

And as in Bigelow’s last picture, the Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t take an active political stance on the subject. It depicts the events of the manhunt in an honest and straightforward manner and focuses on the people involved with it.

 

All business

The story begins with the 9/11 terrorist attacks; however, Bigelow, wisely, doesn’t bring too much attention to it (it’s not the focus of the movie), only giving us the audio. 

We are then brought into a cramped, dimly lit room known as a CIA Black Site, where a group of agents, led by one named Dan (Jason Clarke), are in the middle of interrogating an Arab man. They think he has information on the whereabouts of bin Laden or someone else who may know. 

This is the first of series of interrogations (well, more like torturings). In fact, we spend a majority of the first third of the movie within one of these Black Sites. The torture scenes can be difficult to watch, but they’re nonetheless effective. Bigelow stages them with brutality and honesty.

It’s also during this beginning interrogation that we meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), another CIA agent who ends up leading the entire manhunt. She also becomes the driving force of the whole movie. 

Chastain plays the character with extreme confidence and power. It’s an intelligent performance of both highs and lows. At the beginning, during the first interrogation, while Dan is loud and intimidating to the suspect, she stands in the background, not saying a word; it even looks like she’s repulsed by the whole thing. But soon enough, she moves to the front and becomes the loud and intimidating one. 

She’s dedicated and determined in finding bin Laden, almost obsessed; at times, it feels like a personal vendetta. It’s all business for Maya; we don’t see any of her personal life, which is as it should be. Bigelow and Boal are smart enough not to cram in a needless, cliché side plot involving a neglected spouse or boyfriend.

Bigelow is known for making male-centered action/drama movies (in films like “The Hurt Locker,” “Point Break” and “K-19: The Widowmaker,” women are scarcely seen), and while “Zero Dark Thirty” may have a female protagonist, Bigelow still places her in a very male-dominated environment. Just about all of her superiors and subordinates are male, as well as her enemies. 

But Maya — being the strong, determined person she is — has no problem standing her ground and making her presence known. It’s enthralling watching her butt heads with fellow CIA members like Dan or Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). 

Maya is, of course, a fictional person; in fact, all of the characters in the movie are fictionalized, but there’s also a level of realism in all of them and their situations. Maya may not be real, but she’s completely believable.

 

An authentic feel

After the movie gets going, it settles into a nice rhythm. There are more scenes of torture, followed by the standard walk-and-talk scenes between characters within the walls of various government facilities (taking place in hallways, conference rooms and control rooms). Mix that with very intense and intimate sequences involving CIA operatives doing surveillance in the bustling streets of Pakistan, as well as abrupt bursts of violence to shake up the CIA and their efforts (the bombing of a hotel, for example). 

Boal’s script is perfectly balanced, and Bigelow moves the film along at the right speed, seamlessly streaming through 10 years of activity. It doesn’t move too fast, but at the same time, you’re not checking your watch.

I didn’t expect much from “Zero Dark Thirty”; I just couldn’t picture how this story could be made in an appealing way, besides in documentary form. But Bigelow and Boal succeed in boiling it down to the key essentials and grounding it in interesting and engaging characters. 

In the end, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a dramatization (it’s based on true events, but there’s obviously exaggeration, especially considering it was a CIA mission), but it’s done within realistic bounds. Everything feels authentic.