Covering a roughly 10-year period and ending with the raid into Pakistan that kill Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty follows a CIA Operative on her quest to track down the elusive head of Al-Qaeda, even as the CIA's interests increasingly start to move elsewhere. It's a story of persistence bordering on obsession, part procedural, part character study, shot in a dispassionate, almost documentary style. The film it reminds me the most of is David Finchers' Zodiac, albeit with the key difference that Zodiac didn't end with the killer being gunned down by US Special Forces.
Where ZDT caught some flack - escalated in no small part due to murky pre-Oscars lobbying, no doubt - was it's depiction of torture, which is particularly strong in the opening act of the film. It is pretty graphic and full-on, and difficult to watch, but where the film was criticised was it's refusal to condemn it in the narrative, and consequently (to some) therefore to condone it. Personally I think the film plays an exceptionally straight bat on the subject - sure, there is no debate on the morality of it, and most of the characters seem sure of it's usefulness. However its not actually shown to be effective; no attacks are averted because of information gained through torture, and the trail to Bin Laden is followed through with good old fashioned paperwork. The studied and deliberate ambiguity on the subject is bound to annoy some, but it fits the style of the film.
The ambiguity stretches to the characters; we're never expected, or ever asked to, like Maya, who is difficult, abrasive and increasingly obsessive. Its a great performance from Jessica Chastain, holding the film together as a large ensemble comes and goes around her lonely quest. The final raid avoids any sense of triumphalism, and is a tense, edgy affair shot though with uncomfortable images of soldiers waving guns around women and children as they storm the Abbotabad compound in the dead of night. Again, this odd neutrality of perspective makes it all the more powerful a piece of filmaking.
I doubt that Zero Dark Thirty nails the truth of the hunt for Bin Laden, nor that it is anything but a breif window into one small part of the War on Terror that has been in the background of world events since 2001. But it is a taught and compelling bit of film-making in it's own right, and well worth seeing for that alone.