Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a semi-fiction film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his death in Abbottabad, is raw, and besides all its surrounding controversy, very impersonal and non-political.

The dust hasn’t quite settled yet over the events of May 2011, and watching Thirty seems like sitting through a conversation that one’s already had many times already (thanks to media scrutiny).

Written by Mark Boal (former journalist and writer of the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, also directed by Bigelow), Thirty isn’t plot-heavy. Rather, it is docu drama-heavy, based on partially fictional account on how Bin Laden may have been caught.

The film starts with voices of the people involved in the 9/11 attack over a blank screen and swiftly jumps two years later to Pakistan, where a rookie CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is talked through about “enhanced interrogation techniques” (commonly called torture) by her senior Dan (Jason Clarke). Their mission, in this post-attack new world, is to get intel about future attacks and Osama’s whereabouts.

And as the plot progress, the hunt for Osama turns into an obsession for Maya, who may not have a family or life outside CIA (we don’t really see her back story). At the film’s centre, we see her give 12 years to follow leads and stalk Bin Laden down for an agency that doesn’t take her too seriously.

Mark Strong, Bradley Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton and James Gandolfini along with a refreshing Jennifer Ehle are familiar faces who show up infrequently with serious acting chops. Meanwhile, Bigelow keeps it bare and minimalistic, be it with documentary-style camera work by Greig Fraser or the production design by Jeremy Hindle, who does a good job of recreating Islamabad, Lahore and Abbottabad in India. Their combined effort might makes Thirty’s world convincingly real.

The film’s strongest scenes — which have also been the cause of most critical conversations — are the ones of torture of an Al Qaeda middleman Ammar (Reda Kateb). The moment is emotionally whelming, when we see him clutching to a near empty bottle of juice and biscuits, as if they were his life’s only possession, after a string of inhumane tortures (he is starved, water-boarded, sexually humiliated and stuffed in a small box for withholding info).

Bigelow is an able director when it comes handling complex human emotions, as she has shown earlier in The Hurt Locker, having an Oscar to show for it. Thirty could have benefitted from some of her previous film’s merits.

What it is now is a fine film; if it was more in tune with its feeling it could have been great. Right now, Thirty is like its central heroine Maya: she has the passion of 10, without the motive to fuel its passion.

Released by Columbia Pictures, Zero Dark Thirty is rated R with scenes of extreme violence and torture.

Updated Jan 13, 2013 12:02am

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