Whatever assumptions you might have made about Kathryn Bigelow's fact-based military drama "Zero Dark Thirty" are probably wrong, because Bigelow -- aided by journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal -- guns down the clichés and our expectations in her slow-fused explosive account of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.
We may know how it ends, but how it gets there becomes the raw appeal of this dark and pensive spy procedural, fitted with an unexpected female protagonist based on a real CIA operative whom Boal met while researching the bin Laden story.
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"Zero Dark Thirty"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Other: A Columbia Pictures Release. Rated R for language and violence. 157 minutes
Here, she goes by the name of Maya. She's played by Jessica Chastain, one of the most prolific and amazingly versatile actresses working in Hollywood right now.
Little wonder this story appealed to Bigelow, a female filmmaker who broke into the chauvinistic ranks of the male-dominated action and horror film genre with "Near Dark," "Blue Steel" and the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker."
In "Zero Dark Thirty," Chastain's Maya cautiously navigates through the ranks of two big boys clubs, the CIA and the U.S. military.
Maya begins during the Bush administration as a cringing, grimacing witness to CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) torturing an al-Qaida messenger with waterboarding and sexual humiliation in front of a woman.
Although her reactions seem to reflect our responses to the torture, they are not necessarily hers. Maya quickly adapts to the CIA interrogation culture and proves she has a core of blue steel, just like Jamie Lee Curtis in one of Bigelow's earlier thrillers.
Intellectually sharp and keenly aware politically, Maya becomes obsessed with tracking down the man who helped engineer the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the event that triggers "Zero Dark Thirty" with a black screen accompanied by audio recordings of witnesses to the terrorist acts in New York City.
Maya knows that in these boys clubs, the girls don't get invited to play much. So when opportunities emerge for her male counterparts to take credit for her work, she asserts herself, respectfully but forcefully keeping the record straight.
"Who's she?" a CIA boss asks when he notices the redheaded woman in the room.
"I'm the (bleep) who found bin Ladin," she says bluntly.
Much later, Maya employs her steel convictions to persuade the leadership that bin Laden is indeed holed up in a shrouded compound in Pakistan. Every agent gives his assessment of the odds of bin Laden being there.
"One hundred percent!" Maya shouts. Then she changes her assessment to 95 percent, noting sarcastically that "absolute certainty" scares her male counterparts to death.
Gritty, smart and frighteningly independent, Chastain's Maya becomes one of the most memorable female characters to hit the silver screen in recent years.
Her story takes up the bulk of the first two hours in "Zero Dark Thirty."
Then we get to Bigelow's piece de resistance, the secret assault on the mysterious Pakistan compound by U.S. Navy SEALS (two played by cocky Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt).
This set piece ratchets up the tension with a hyper-realism so crammed with visual and audio details that Greig Fraser's camera lens appears to be filming a documentary, not a riveting action thriller.
"Zero Dark Thirty" eschews clichés with such passion that it actually blunts some of the events that less confident filmmakers would have exploited for easy audience catharsis (such as the death of bin Laden, anticlimactically presented as something the SEALS weren't even aware of at the time).
As she did in "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow drops us into a foreign culture, this time both at the CIA and U.S. military, and gives us a perspective on bin Laden and the American response to al-Qaida that wisely minimizes partisan politics. (The movie was deliberately released after the presidential election.)
Boal peppers his screenplay with realistic, unexplained jargon often drowned out by ambient sounds emitted from aircraft and guns.
That's just one of the many reasons Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" (a military term referring to the time of bin Laden's death at 12:30 a.m.) rings with such authenticity and power, and why it earned my ranking as the No. 1 of 2012.