"Zero Dark Thirty" is, like the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a slow starter.
As a flash point for arguments about torture and humiliation, access to officials and classified information, messages the filmmakers intended to send and the conflicting ones received by some U.S. senators, it's a fast starter. In fact, thanks to widespread news reports, Pittsburghers may wonder, "Didn't this movie already open?"
Filmed in Jordan and India, "Zero Dark Thirty" debuted Dec. 19 in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for the 2012 Oscar season -- a strategy that worked like a charm -- and finally lands in theaters here today.
3.5 stars = Very Good
Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt.
R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
"Lincoln" may be talky and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" shows its stretch marks but "Zero Dark Thirty" demands patience and attention in the early going of its 157 minutes.
Not only does it dramatize inhumane treatment by Americans -- waterboarding, clamping a metal collar on a man's neck and walking him as if he were a dog, exposing his genitals to a strange woman -- but it also places the opening action at CIA "black sites" at undisclosed overseas locations.
"In the end, everybody breaks, bro. It's biology," an American tells his prisoner and a new observer and fellow CIA operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain), in the Middle East. She's a "targeter" whose job is finding terrorists.
Throw in abbreviations and names or details the movie assumes you know and you might wish you had bought a ticket for "Gangster Squad." But once the movie gets rolling and Maya is emboldened and infuriated by delays in attacking the compound where she is certain -- in her gut -- that bin Laden is hiding, it really picks up steam.
Knowing how the story ends doesn't diminish the tension or fascination as Navy SEALs lift off in the dark of night for a mission whose success is never guaranteed. It seems evident that killing, rather than capturing, the al-Qaida leader was always the intent or a welcome outcome.
"Zero Dark Thirty," which takes its title from the 12:30 a.m. arrival at the Pakistan compound, reunites director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. They each won Academy Awards for "The Hurt Locker," which emerged from a field of 10 nominees to be best picture of 2009.
The movie says it is "based on firsthand accounts of actual events" and that includes missteps -- some fatal -- by overzealous, naive Americans, meetings with top CIA brass and watching how detective work, information once overlooked or misinterpreted, and civilian and military fortitude led to bin Laden.
As we learned with "The Dark Knight Rises," no movie exists in a bubble and it's impossible to ignore the swirling controversy around "Zero Dark Thirty."
Earlier this week, at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards ceremony, Ms. Bigelow reiterated that "depiction is not an endorsement" and if it were, no artist, author or filmmaker could tackle the knotty subjects of our time, news accounts said.
But as a movie, "Zero Dark Thirty" is salted with fascinating detail, dialogue or phrases that sound lifted from onetime journalist Boal's notebook (a reference to "pre-9/11 behavior" that ruffles feathers, a CIA agent who says, "I need to go do something normal for a while" and "We're all smart," in response to an assessment of Maya).
In addition to Ms. Chastain, the cast includes Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle as Maya's colleagues; Kyle Chandler as the CIA station chief in Islamabad; Mark Strong as the head of the Afghanistan and Pakistan divisions of the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA; James Gandolfini as the CIA director; Edgar Ramirez as a surveillance specialist; and Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as Navy SEALs.
The one element that's missing here is what drives Maya (not the woman's real name) and how she came to the CIA. Too much background might identify and endanger her, but you wonder how she landed in the middle of one of the most historic hunts and successful stealth missions of the century.