CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) takes in the awe of the moment following a significant military operation in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The movie is about the American government’s efforts to find al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Jonathan Olley/Sony Pictures

CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) takes in the awe of the moment following a significant military operation in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The movie is about the American government’s efforts to find al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Andy Bockelman: 'Zero Dark Thirty': The hunt is on

Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

“Zero Dark Thirty” R

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Run time: 157 minutes

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Ehle

Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas. For a full list of this week's movie times, click here.

— During the past decade, we’ve seen myriad movies and TV shows about the war on terror, and good or bad, few have dared to reach for the brass ring and stay as close to true events as possible.

Whether you believe a film like “Zero Dark Thirty” is authentic, you have to admire the boldness involved in re-creating one of America’s most controversial ongoing sagas.

In the Oscar-nominated film, novice CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her seasoned mentor Dan (Jason Clarke) are stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, where they’re involved in gathering information on al-Qaida operatives.

Maya refuses to relent when the going gets tough. And, as she becomes further entrenched in her job, her focus drifts ever more to her long-term goal, the ultimate strike against al-Qaida: finding and killing Osama bin Laden.

Before 2011, hardly anyone had heard of Chastain, yet two years later, she’s perhaps the most respected new face on the movie scene.

The woman who amazed us in smaller capacities playing the bubble-headed blonde of “The Help” and the fragile mother of “The Tree of Life” works even better as the keystone of a whole film playing the agent who claims to have been recruited out of high school and whose entire life becomes indiscernible from the search for the slipperiest man in recent world history.

Chastain lays it all on the line whether Maya is resolutely questioning stubborn prisoners, furiously telling off her boss (Kyle Chandler) or, once in a great while, reflecting on how much she’s given up to get where she is.

Clarke is just as capable as the man who teaches her everything he knows, expressly his mastery of torture, putting one of his captives (Reda Kateb) through a nonstop gauntlet of sensory deprivation, waterboarding and humiliation. And that’s just the stuff we see before the good cop, bad cop routine starts.

Yet, as we see from a more humane agent (Jennifer Ehle), sometimes you don’t catch more flies with honey.

Whichever tactics work best, the point of the whole ordeal is to catch the big dog himself, and when one good tip leads the CIA to a well-hidden compound, that’s when the action begins. Well, kind of.

Mark Boal’s screenplay shows us not only the amount of man-hours that went into the hunt for bin Laden, but also the lengthy, almost excruciating period of time spent debating the veracity of all the information at hand.

And, if it’s tough for us to fathom why these people would want to risk having all their work go to waste, it only makes sense to see an impatient Maya use a red dry-erase marker to do a running tally of every day her superiors have spent stalling.

Likewise, after “The Hurt Locker” it’s no surprise Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow wanted to take on such an ambitious project to detail the many years and incidents that have come to pass since Sept. 11. Garbled radio transmissions of 9/11 victims and responders kick off the movie, giving it a slightly manipulative and mawkish vibe before jumping into the nitty-gritty of CIA operations.

Bigelow ratchets up the tension as she leads up to the already infamous raid by Navy SEAL Team Six, and while the woman responsible for setting everything in motion isn’t defusing bombs like the men of “The Hurt Locker,” without Maya, everything indeed would blow up. It’s hard to miss how closely the director relates to her heroine in her personal quest to avenge all the lives lost, the horrifying thought that it could all be for nothing and the occasional afterthought as to whether the ends justify the means.

The title of “Zero Dark Thirty” — military code for 12:30 a.m. — hints at covert, underhanded schemes in the name of preserving the freedoms of Americans and forces its audience to question whether the path we’ve gone down has been worth it.

Has every step been a good one or even a correct one? Hardly, but Bigelow and Boal don’t attempt to make too biased a statement one way or the other.

The reason a film like this works? It asks the question in the first place.

Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.

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