CONTAINS VERY LITTLE IN THE WAY OF SPOILERS
The ten-year quest for Osama bin Laden is probably going to be the most politically, morally and emotionally difficult project any director could choose to tackle. The scars of 9/11 are still raw and the topic has to be approached with sincerity and sensitivity, maturity and responsibility. It would be easy to turn it into a gung-ho flagwaver of the "Yee-haw, let's get the bastards!" variety, but the overwhelming stench of bad taste would make the average Troma film look like Merchant Ivory. All credit then to Kathryn Bigelow for making a cool-headed, respectful yet still exciting and absorbing film, without criticising, condemning or condoning.
The central character of Zero Dark Thirty isn't Osama, who remains unseen for all but a few frames of the film, but Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer about whom we are told absolutely nothing, not even a last name, despite her being in every scene and pretty much every shot for the first two hours. Her unit is tasked with picking through every name, photograph and family connection: not tracking The Bad Guy directly but narrowing the search down via those who might have had contact with others who might have contact with him - until there's at best a soft 60% probability that he's in an unusually secure compound in Pakistan. At that point two stealth helicopters full of US Navy SEALs are sent in....and the rest we know.
Much has already been said about Zero Dark Thirty's supposed position on the use and effectiveness of torture, and the film certainly doesn't pretend these things didn't happen, with several scenes of detainees being waterboarded, confined, humiliated and strung up. This doesn't mean that the film or the makers believe it's a Good Thing, any more than the sight of Jessica Chastain recoiling in disgust from the interrogation techniques at the start is meant to suggest it's a Bad Thing. I don't think the film has a position on the use of torture beyond reporting that it happened, for good or ill, and that nothing is gained by pretending it didn't, especially when the world knows that it did (whatever it might be politically expedient for the President to deny in a TV interview). People weren't being "extraordinarily rendered" so they could go to a Kylie Minogue concert.
Such an approach might lose Bigelow the Oscar (not that it matters much): it's up against Lincoln which looks to be a much more comfortable bet both for Academy voters, who don't really want to tick the box for the film that shows America in a darker light, and audiences who want a softer, more romanticised view of their more distant history. (Disclaimer: I haven't seen Lincoln yet.) Still, Zero Dark Thirty is gripping throughout and it hardly flags despite a 157-minute running time; the acting is exemplary and the final military assault setpiece racks up tension despite the audience knowing precisely how it ends. Hugely impressive, it's probably a film more to admire, respect and think about than to just sit back and enjoy: impeccably made, it isn't a comfortable and reassuring film. It's unsettling, occasionally shocking, and leaves the easy morality for you to grapple with afterwards. Pretty terrific.