After opening with a black screen and a barrage of frantic 9/11 cell phone calls, Zero Dark Thirty quickly fast-forwards two years to a grimy, stark bunker, where we first see the CIA’s controversial interrogation tactics in action. Waterboarding and humiliation are presented in grim detail, as a fresh-faced CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain) looks on with equal amounts of horror and disgust.

But this, we’re led to believe, is what must be done to track down 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

The debate over the torture of detainees has raged for the better part of a decade, and Zero Dark Thirty will do little, if anything, to quell the furor, but whatever your personal convictions, there’s no denying that director Kathryn Bigelow is a master at what she does. Not far in, we quickly come to realize her Oscar-winning direction of 2009’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker wasn’t a fluke; Zero Dark Thirty is a powerhouse of the highest order.

Driven by Chastain’s brilliant, multi-textured performance, the film tracks a decade’s worth of CIA interrogations, investigations, dead-ends, and breakthroughs. The first two hours are heavy on names and places, set against the backdrop of several bin Laden-led terrorist attacks. Each is recreated vividly, and even though we know they’re coming the high tension never wanes for an instant.

It’s the final half-hour, though, that transcends simple movie-making and enters an entirely new realm of cinematic brilliance. The Seal Team Six assault on bin Laden’s compound is presented in near darkness and real time, exactly as it unfolded. You would be hard-pressed to find a more gripping and completely immersive sequence in the history of modern film.

Likewise, Mark Boal’s riveting screenplay deserves an equal measure of acclaim, particularly given the fact that we’re all aware how the story ends. Debate the ethics and the controversy all you want, but Zero Dark Thirty will stand for many years to come as not only one of the most formidable movies in recent memory but also one of the most important.

5/5 stars