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Zero Dark Thirty

Chronicling nearly a decade's worth of investigations, and an endless amount of headaches on the part of CIA operatives, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty burns slowly through America's turbulent search for Osama bin Laden. Where Hurt Locker brewed tension from red-or-blue-wire bomb scenarios and military action, the Oscar winner's follow-up finds it in a maelstrom of intel, the temperamental conditions of the Middle East, and the bureaucracy of back home. Jessica Chastain's Maya goes from bright newcomer to the obsessed soldier of justice, giving Javert a run for his money in pursuit of a criminal in one's crosshairs. When Seal Team Six finally receives their infamous assignment, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal continue to ask questions — imperative in a film that speaks to one of U.S.'s murkiest zeitgeists.

Maya is first introduced dressed up in a clean, well-fitting suit, preparing to witness her very first interrogation. The scene escalates quickly, with her coworker Dan (Jason Clarke) employing the waterboarding technique against the close-lipped detainee Ammar (Reda Kateb, A Prophet). Zero Dark Thirty has come under fire for its portrayal of torture, but nothing in Bigelow's film comes close to condoning the process. Instead, the film focuses in on the ramifications. Months of pressure eventually breaks Ammar — and his interrogator. A distraught Dan heads back to Washington, leaving Maya even more committed to chasing leads and finding bin Laden on her own.

The careful orchestration of details — names, locations, dates, and any other shred of evidence that could lead Maya and her team to bin Laden — turns Zero Dark Thirty into a thriller by way of a New Yorker essay. Boal finds emotion in cut and dry information; Chastain's determination, ferocity, and at times, exhaustion, speak volumes — even when the dialogue is laying down facts. Bigelow surrounds her with an inspired cast: Kyle Chandler as the dapper politico chief, Jennifer Ehle as a intelligence officer who draws out Maya's last few drops of friendship, and Mark Strong as a ball-buster who loses his stance above the team as Maya pours herself entirely into the operation and asserts dominance. Bigelow has an eye for action, and the Seal Team Six infiltration that caps the film is expertly crafted, thanks to tactical movements lit dimly and paced with Alexandre Desplat's rumbling score. But Bigelow also respects the personalities of soldiers. They speak like people, act like people, and in moments of bloodshed (decisions made in morally grey zones), they respond and react like people.

Zero Dark Thirty is awe-inspiring for its ability to chronicle a long-gestating investigation, but it's one of 2012's best because it digs deeper and examines both sides of the coin. No decision is made without consequences, even the ones that feel so right in the moment. The death of Osama bin Laden was a momentous occasion in the United States. As Chastain reveals with unflinching elegance, pulling it off cost more than anyone could ever know.

What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes! rated this film 4 1/2 stars.