Conservatives shouldn't feel paranoid for expecting "Zero Dark Thirty" to be an infomercial for President Barack Obama's one unabashed triumph - the death of Osama bin Laden.
The film's initial release date, roughly a month before Election Day, merely heightened those fears. Hollywood routinely bends over backwards to include progressive messages within its films, be they war movies or soft and cuddly kid films.
"Thirty," finally in wide release following a limited awards season launch, proves to be anything but an ideological cudgel. You don't need to squint to find political nuggets, from a scene describing Obama as a "thoughtful, analytical guy" to a line decrying President George W. Bush's claims over weapons of mass destruction.
Yet a CIA character bemoans how the information spigot ran dry after Obama halted the use of enhanced interrogation tactics, a sequence sure to rile up the president's apologists.
Such moments are fleeting and hardly typify the tone or purpose. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have made a smart, methodical film, thoroughly sober in its tactics and restraint. No rah-rah moments, movie star quips or scenes meant to inspire cheers from packed theaters.
No matter how much information the duo may or may not have received from the Obama White House, what we see on screen is gently mesmerizing. It's a nearly three hour procedural punctuated by the most ferocious female hero since Sigourney Weaver called that ugly alien a "bitch" back in "Aliens."
"Zero Dark Thirty" begins with a black screen, the sounds of Sept. 11, 2011 heard all too clearly. From there the hunt for bin Laden begins, a process that involves plenty of enhanced interrogations of key witnesses. That means name calling, sleep deprivation and, yes, the most cruel practice imaginable, water boarding.
(It's such an inhuman practice that actors from Denzel Washington to "Zero" star Jason Clarke voluntarily submitted to it.)
Clarke, last seen in the moonshine actioner "Lawless," plays a U.S. interrogator working with a feisty new recruit. Maya (Jessica Chastain) looks uneasy about the interrogation tactics at first, but her zest to bring bin Laden to justice soon takes over. She becomes obsessed with the terrorist mastermind, and while her passion alarms her superiors, her undying efforts slowly start to pay off.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is in no rush to get to bin Laden's lair. We see the finer details of enhanced interrogation, watch CIA officials wring their hands over their elusive target and get to know Maya without any of the standard character tells. She appears to have no friends, no home life, no significant other, yet Chastain makes her a flawed heroine you'd gladly march behind into battle.
Later in the film, when co-star Joel Edgerton expresses confidence that they'll soon find bin Laden due to Maya's almost Zen-like optimism, you simply nod in agreement.
The interrogation sequences early in the film could certainly inflame radicalized elements in the Middle East, but taken in context the film shows how they played a role in gaining critical information for the manhunt. There's no "a ha" moment here where a waterboarded prisoner cries out bin Laden's street address. That wouldn't suit Bigelow's storytelling style.
Her presentation is streamlined and pure, providing visual information without being obtrusive. That documentary-like approach, combined with the lack of Hollywood flair, gives an already intense story a boost of credibility.
"Zero Dark Thirty" could be construed as a victory for New Media, which would have directly challenged the film had it settled for easily debunked sucker punches. Instead, Bigelow's portrait of the greatest manhunt of modern times is deliberate and bold, a triumph of artistry stripped mostly clean of political firepower.