Just as there are bad movies you love — here’s looking at you, “Road House” — there are great movies that fail to generate many warm feelings.
Which is why, even though it’s undeniably one of the year’s best films, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever flipping channels, coming across it on basic cable and exclaiming, “Yes! Time to get my ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ on!”
From its opening snippets of 911 calls on Sept. 11, 2001, to its scenes of “enhanced interrogation” to its depiction of the killing of Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a difficult movie to enjoy.
There’s literally nothing pretty about it.
Except Jessica Chastain.
The future Oscar winner is the heart and soul of “Zero Dark Thirty” as her Maya transforms over the course of nearly a decade from being squeamish at the site of aggressive questioning to a tough-as-nails force of nature hell-bent on finding bin Laden.
She’s “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison, minus the sex drive and the crazy eyes.
In 2003, the freshly scrubbed CIA officer arrives at a black site in an undisclosed location to find an operative named Dan (Jason Clarke) working over a prisoner suspended from the ceiling by chains, demanding email addresses and the last time he saw bin Laden.
As the detainee is denied solid food, stripped and humiliated before being folded into a small box, Dan repeats the mantra, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.”
It’s all very uncomfortable and difficult to watch as you force yourself to remember these are the good guys.
It’s also the scene that has outraged politicians who question its accuracy.
But the filmmakers — the Oscar-winning “Hurt Locker” team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal — stand by the movie’s investigative journalism. (The Maya character, for instance, is based on a real person whose identity must remain secret as she’s still active in the CIA — at least until she’s Valerie Plame-d.)
Dan eventually heads back to the States — “I need to go do something normal for a while” — with a warning to Maya that times are changing.
“You don’t wanna be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”
From there, the hunt for bin Laden mostly relies on more traditional boots-on-the-ground investigation: poring over documents, wire-tapping, even trading a Lamborghini for a phone number.
As the years drag on, “Zero Dark Thirty” is punctuated by moments of unexpected violence that all but knock you out of your seat.
And all the while, Chastain’s Maya perseveres, spending years doggedly pursuing a single lead, even when her station chief in Islamabad (Kyle Chandler) orders her to turn her focus to the homeland, complaining that she’s “chasing a ghost” based on “some detainee seven years ago.”
That just makes the vindication that much sweeter when that “ghost” leads her to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
If you ever want to see the moment an actress earns her first Oscar, it comes when Maya speaks up at the end of a group meeting with CIA director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) about Abbottabad. When he asks who she is, Chastain lets her inner Samuel L. Jackson come out to play with a triumphant, “I’m the mother(expletive) who found this place!”
Maya is largely sidelined for the final act, though, as Seal Team Six (led by Joel Edgerton, with some dry humor from Chris Pratt) takes over — after a quick detour to Area 51 for helicopters that “technically don’t exist.”
These final minutes contain most of the action seen in the trailers for “Zero Dark Thirty” — named for the time, 12:30 a.m., the SEALs first entered the compound — but that doesn’t make everything that comes before any less gripping.
And when bin Laden’s death is confirmed via radio — “Geronimo, for God and country, Geronimo” — it’s nearly impossible to stifle a rush of emotion.
Given its serialized story structure and its length — a whopping 2 hours, 37 minutes — watching “Zero Dark Thirty” feels like spending the day with an HBO miniseries.
You may not even like it.
But, regardless of your politics, you’re all but guaranteed to appreciate it.
• • •
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org