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Upon arriving at a CIA black site and witnessing the brutal interrogation tactics firsthand, driven operative Maya (Chastain) aids her unpredictable colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) in gathering the intelligence that will help bring their target to justice.
Nearly a decade after the Twin Towers were destroyed by a terrorist plot, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty attempts to directly address how the country as a whole responded to that horrific event.
When she finally feels she has a solid lead on bin Laden's actual whereabouts, she convinces the military to strike with an elite force.
That raid makes up the last 30 minutes of the movie and it's a technical marvel, as are the other infrequent action sequences sprinkled throughout the long, talk-filled passages.
The lack of a personal connection to the troops is missed all the more because we already know the mission will be a success.
That propensity for flat, two-dimensional characters -- even when they're played by inherently likable actors -- keeps us at a distance.
They confirm that Bigelow remains one of the finest action directors working today, but the finale also clearly reveals the film's biggest flaw, namely screenwriter Mark Boal's inability to make any of the characters three-dimensional.