I honestly thought I’d written this review a couple weeks ago. Oh well. Perhaps a little belatedly (though just in time for tomorrow’s wide release) here are a few quick thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty picks up not long after 9/11 and follows one CIA agent through the 10 year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Interesting tidbit: this movie was initially conceived before bin Laden was found and killed. It very nearly went to production that way. It was to be a drama/thriller that ended in a sort of question as to whether bin Laden would ever be found.

And then he was.

Commendably, director Kathryn Bigelow and the film’s producers went ahead with the same basic story structure, only adding some to the end of the film to let it culminate in the assault on bin Laden’s hideout. And perhaps in large part to this decision, the film is a winner. We get to relive anew the pain and frustration through the eyes of Maya, a CIA agent played in what well could be an Oscar winning performance by Jessica Chastain.

Talking about plot in regards to this movie isn’t what I want to do here. Don’t get me wrong, there is a plot. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal manage to make intense drama out of what is essentially years of chasing shaky leads. I don’t want to spoil the plot, not even here, because this is a movie best seen fresh.

What I do want to talk about is atmosphere, because this is what the film does so well. I’m a big proponent of the efficacy of atmosphere in storytelling, regardless of media. If you’ve ever played through the Shadow Temple (well, really any temple, but especially that one) in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or read a book by Cormac McCarthy, you know how effective a great atmosphere can be. Zero Dark Thirty nails its atmosphere. Throughout the film we feel the struggles of what increasingly seems an impossible task on a very personal level. The weight of the Arab world seems to be coming down on the heads of Maya and her fellow operatives. But not only that, there’s a tangible weight and solemnity to the proceedings. This is not a “Yay ‘Murica!” movie. This is a movie that considers the consequences of killing, even killing one’s enemy, even when it’s preventing further mass slaughter. It’s a movie that invites us to consider the gravity and significance of our actions, and it presents this idea in a very matter-of-fact, journalistic, largely unbiased way that makes that invitation all the more enticing.

The Verdict: 5 out of 5

I don’t want to say much more about this movie, because I really think it is one you ought to see for yourself. For me, it fell just short of greatness, but I think that’s more due to the type of movie it sets out to be. It’s not going to be transcendent and inspiring, but it is going to be damn good. It’s gutsy and absolutely enthralling, and chances are it’ll be my pick for Best Picture come Oscar night.

**A Quick Note — Much has been made of the film’s supposed condoning of “advanced interrogation techniques” which opponents say is torture. Yes, the film presents some scenes that are hard to watch. Maya has trouble watching them at first. I don’t think that the film explicitly condones torture. It certainly doesn’t condemn some of the extreme measures implemented by U.S. agents, but it presents them in such a way that you are free to think of them what you will.