Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") has masterfully directed action and actors in "Zero Dark Thirty," a slow-burning re-creation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Like a crime thriller, the story takes us through unsettling detective work to find a link to the elusive terrorist. It is left for the audience to decide if the controversial "enhanced interrogation techniques" depicted in the film were effective.
Jessica Chastain is a wonder as a CIA analyst whose grim determination to find bin Laden never wavers through dead ends, deadly attacks and deadpan opposition from her boss.
The suspense builds in the third act when a lead finally pays off. Although the outcome is famously known, the deadly raid in a quiet Pakistani neighborhood (as seen through night-vision goggles) is about as brave and intense as you can get.
'Impossible' but true
Another fact-based drama, "The Impossible" tells of one family's experience during the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
Maria and Henry (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) are on Christmas holiday with their three boys at an idyllic oceanfront resort in Thailand. Nothing prepared them for the horrors to come, and the catastrophic wall of water onscreen is about as close as anyone wants to get to the real thing.
While clinging to a tree and screaming in terror, Maria sees her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) being swept past. In her desperation to reach her son, she is seriously injured, and the boy becomes the protector.
Meanwhile, the enormity of death and destruction hits home as Henry searches for them.
These actors gave such agonized emotional truth to their performances that I wept with them. "The Impossible" is gut-wrenching, but how life-affirming to know that miracles do indeed happen.
John Depko is off this week.