WEST HOLLYWOOD - "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's follow up to her Oscar-winning thriller "The Hurt Locker," made its formal screening debut in both New York and Los Angeles on Sunday, but the West Coast audience had the pleasure of a formal discussion with the director and some of her cast members immediately following.

A systematic account of the CIA's efforts to capture Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, "Thirty" tells its story through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), an operative who becomes increasingly determined to find the al-Qaeda leader.  It was not an easy road for the world's intelligence organizations and Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have no qualms about depicting the water-boarding or other interrogation techniques used to try and retrieve information from accused terrorist captives. The filmmakers let the audience cast their own opinions on whether the techniques worked or not, but Bigelow's most impressive accomplishment is the build up and depiction of the attack on bin Laden's compound.  Like "Argo," Bigelow and editors William Goldenberg ("Heat") and Dylan Tichenor ("There Will Be Blood") generate genuine tension for an outcome a majority of the audience is already aware of. Considering the pressure on Bigelow to follow up "Hurt Locker," what she pulls off with this political powder keg is nothing sort of remarkable. "Thirty" is clearly one of the best films of the year and should easily make this pundit's top 10 list next month.
 
Bigelow is assisted on "Thirty" by a focused performance from Chastain who easily depicts the growing weight of responsibility that falls on Maya's shoulders.  Anyone hoping to dismiss her character or turn as a ripoff of "Homeland's" Carrie Mathison will be very disappointed. Jason Clarke ("Lawless," "The Chicago Code") gets the second-most screen time and his off kilter agent doing his best to hold on to his humanity after years of interrogation torture is good stuff.  It's a great moment for Clarke, but he's unlikely to find himself invited to the Oscars for it. Unknown actor Reda Kateb is absolutely superb as the initial captive being interrogated by Clarke's character. Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini and Chris Pratt are standouts among the rest of the 120-person speaking cast.

After two standing ovations, one for Bigelow and the other for Chastain, the duo were joined by Boal, Clarke, Ehle and Edgar Martinez for what turned out to be an entertaining 40-minute Q&A.

Like a number of other awards season contenders this year, "Zero Dark Thirty" barely made it to the finish line in time. Bigelow admitted she walked out of the final mix just four days before. Both she and Boal had been working on an Osama bin Laden film for some time, but it wasn't the hunt many thought it was before the terrorist's death changed things over a year and a half ago.



"We were working on a project about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2001, where basically he was last seen in the Tora Bora mountain range in Afghanistan," Bigelow reveals. "We were working with a group of Delta operators who were in the mountain range at the time and they lost him as he went down that corridor to Pakistan.  Mark was working on that screenplay and about at 10 o'clock at night on May 1, 2011, we realized we could no longer make a movie about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden."

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