The “Zero Dark Thirty” Raid and that Cereal Scene in “The Hurt Locker”

The climactic raid that ends “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of those meticulous, intense, entertaining action scenes that’ll be remembered forever, like the shootout in “Heat” or the car chase in “Bullitt.” Shrouded entirely in the dark of half past midnight, Seal Team 6 urgently talks, shoots and explodes its way floor-by-floor, in pursuit of America’s ultimate individual enemy.

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It isn’t just the viciously efficient way the soldiers cut toward Osama Bin Laden that makes this scene amazing. It’s also what they say to each other in the few seconds they occasionally take to regroup as they fight through the compound. Soldier’s skill and top-line technology get brilliantly showcased in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but personalities shine through as well. The effect this has is to bring on, again, the satisfaction that came with knowing Bin Laden had finally been found and shot down. America celebrated as one.

The buildup to this sublime ending is epic. There are terrorist attacks in “Zero Dark Thirty” before the raid, but they are brief. Most of the scenes are comprised of high-stakes talking. There are torture scenes, including a guy getting stripped from the waste down, fitted with a dog collar and crammed into a small wooden box. There are also a lot of high-level government meetings, with powerful men swearing at each other.

Jessica Chastain just won the Best Actress Golden Globe for this movie because her character is so genuine in her determination and commitment. The hunt becomes personal, which sharpens her focus and makes her work harder to scratch a good lead and find the terrorist who “murdered 3,000 innocent Americans” on 9/11, a fact “Zero Dark Thirty” reminds us of out-loud and repeatedly.

When I was a newspaper reporter I covered veterans’ affairs stuff occasionally. A couple years ago, on two separate occasions, Vietnam veterans brought up “The Hurt Locker,” the previous film directed by Katheryn Bigelow. (It won the Best Picture Oscar over “Avatar,” and Bigelow won best director.) In each of those instances, the veteran specifically mentioned the scene toward the end of the film, when the main soldier is back home with his family and shopping for cereal. He stands staring at all the different kinds of cereal on store shelves, then he sneers, grabs the box closest to him, and throws it into his cart. War veterans, scant sampling tells me, love this scene and completely relate to it.

“Zero Dark Thirty” feels drier than “The Hurt Locker,” but the movies share a humanity that helps make Bigelow our most treasured action director. Both are technically awesome, but they also bring out rich aspects of their characters through understated moments. A few words in “Zero Dark Thirty” can convey intelligence, dark humor and urgency all at once.

Chastian’s CIA agent Maya isn’t crazy like Carrie in “Homeland,” but she certainly feels the drama of this deadly hunt and is hurt by it. We see it trickle through thoughout “Zero Dark Thirty,” until a final shot that flawlessly conveys the complicated satisfaction of a high-stakes mission accomplished. And we are right there with her. This is a really good movie.

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