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It’s a dark night, somewhere in Pakistan, and helicopters hang like fog over a shadowy compound. This is the climactic scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping “Zero Dark Thirty,” and it’s an event we all remember from the headlines: the raid, at 30 minutes after midnight (the movie’s title is the military term for that time) by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011, that resulted in the capture and death of Osama bin Laden. Chaos reigns, for the quick frantic minutes of the raid, shown in eerie greenish yellow night vision; women and children scream as shots are fired. “Geronimo,” a voice finally says. “For God and country.” The task is done.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who previously collaborated on the Oscar-winning military drama “The Hurt Locker”) bring an uncanny urgency and suspense to a story that, like “Argo” earlier this year, has an ending we already know. “Zero Dark Thirty,” with its harrowing close-up depictions of waterboarding and other tortures (and implication that such torture was a necessary means to an end), isn’t easy viewing — but just try to look away.

At its center is the deceptively ethereal-looking Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer who became obsessed with finding bin Laden, and ultimately did so. (Maya is based on an actual, unnamed person, just as the movie is based on, as its opening screen tells us, “firsthand accounts of actual events.” It is, however, a feature film and not a documentary; dramatic license may well have been taken.) Bigelow and Boal give us little backstory for Maya; we don’t know why this woman ended up in the CIA, what her personal life is like (if she has one), what drives her to ultimately say, to those SEALs, “you’re gonna kill him for me.” What we know of her comes from the set of her jaw, the quiet way she declines to have things made easy for her, the fact that she keeps as her computer screen saver a photo of a friend killed in the line of duty — and the way that, in a long, final close-up, her trademark fierceness cracks just the tiniest bit, and then settles again.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a long movie, but it covers a decade (beginning with heartbreaking sounds of 9/11), and makes the point that an operation like this requires many years, many plans, many lives. There are fleeting references of non-manhunt life throughout — a Christmas tree in an otherwise bare cafeteria, a mention of Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings” — but these are rare in a movie that has, like Maya, a laser focus. “Where do you want to go?” Maya is asked at the end. She’s quiet; for the first time in 10 years, she doesn’t know.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or