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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Zero Dark Thirty' a good follow-up to 'Hurt Locker'

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Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' electrifying new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, "Zero Dark Thirty."

Zero Dark Thirty

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

Already the winner of a slew of critics' association awards, "Zero Dark Thirty" will likely be a heavy favorite for the Golden Globe and Best Picture Oscar as well. Does it deserve all of its fawning accolades? If two hours of talk-heavy procedural followed by a relatively brief 45-minute burst of action sounds appealing, then you might agree that it's the best movie of 2012.

If for no other reason, "ZDT" will go far in changing the majority of peoples' minds regarding Sept. 11, 2001-themed movies. For better or worse, most people don't want to pay to be reminded of one of the worst days of their lives and even fewer wish to do so for a subpar film. Of the dozen or so previous 9/11 productions, only "United 93" was worthwhile and all of them have tanked at the box office. Eleven years later, is it still "too soon" for a movie like this?

What immediately sets "ZDT" apart from the rest of the pack is its near-avoidance of acknowledging the events of 9/11; it's mentioned only once and it is fleeting. This is a story of what's happened since then and the bulk of what is seen and discussed has never been made public. It's more of a mystery thriller than an action/war flick and is also faced with the monumental challenge of presenting a story with an ending everyone already knows well.

"ZDT" is the first effort from writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow since both won two Oscars each for their work on "The Hurt Locker," and it is a beyond-logical follow-up. Neither filmmaker seems the least bit intimidated with the expectations that come with such a film; one with so much narrative and visual overlap with its predecessor. Nearly twice as long as "The Hurt Locker," "ZDT" also affords the filmmakers a considerably bigger budget ($40 million vs. $15 million), a broader canvas and a significantly larger speaking-role cast.

Appearing in practically every frame of the first two acts, Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a greenhorn CIA agent whose first assignment includes being witness to the torture of captured al-Qaida terrorists. Initially wincing and often looking away, Maya quickly grows to understand that gathering intelligence is a brutal endeavor and it doesn't harden her as much as it narrows her focus on her task. Cold-blooded murderers play hardball, and so must she if the U.S. is to squash Muslim-based terrorism.

One of only a few high-clearance females in the CIA stationed in the Middle East, Maya comes to the unfortunate realization that the agency is a boys' club, and most of the members are none too thrilled that they must not only work alongside a woman who often outranks them, but one whose investigative talents far eclipse theirs. It's easy to see why Bigelow -- the only female recipient of a Best Director Oscar -- was drawn to Maya's plight.

After a decade of sweat equity and an unfathomable level of emotional investment, Maya must turn over the shepherding reigns to the Navy SEALs and hope they can close the deal. Watching them in action from a closed-circuit TV not far away, Maya projects the expression of a football or soccer mom who stands on the sidelines desperately wanting her "child" to succeed. In the aftermath, Maya exhibits a mix of exhaustion, relief, pride and bittersweet resignation. She'll never have a professional challenge on a par with this mission and she seems somewhat melancholy when it's finally over.

In a year of not many great lead female performances, Chastain will tower over her competition and should walk away with what could be the first of several Academy Awards. At this point in time there is no actress on the planet (save for Meryl Streep) that can get remotely close to Chastain's level of talent and screen presence.

The final act -- starting at 12:30 a.m. (or "zero dark thirty" in military terminology) and often shot through night vision lenses -- is stunning and is easily on a par with anything Bigelow presented in "The Hurt Locker." How ironic would it be if she won a second Best Director Oscar for another action/war flick? Not only would that be possible, it's probable.

Holding Bigelow, Boal and the picture itself back from true greatness are those first two acts that, while almost always illuminating, frequently get bogged down with government red-tape doublespeak, pipsqueak political squabbling and military jargon which results in unneeded, cacophonous aural overload. If this bit was trimmed down and the movie was 30 minutes shorter, "ZDT" would more than deserve all of its recent and future praise. (Sony/Columbia)