Jessica Chastain is only in her second year in films, and already she’s one of the most commanding actresses of her generation: From her brittle beauty in The Help to carrying her own opposite Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in Tree of Life (two best picture nominees last year that she starred in) to her current part in Zero Dark Thirty, where she shows resolve and vulnerability within the same breath, the depth of her mastery of the film medium is staggering. From the first 30 seconds of director Kathryn Bigelow’s epic examination of the war on terror and the quest for Bin Laden, Chastain engages us with her Jodie Foster-esque inquisitiveness, and for the next two hours, she never lets us go. It’s the kind of performance Oscars were designed for.
That’s good, because with her as the anchor, Zero Dark Thirty almost makes sense. If you go by the TV ads, it’s about the on-the-ground hunt for Bin Laden, culminating in the raid by Seal Team 6 nearly two years ago, but really, it’s about the massive intelligence-gathering machine and how it’s a miracle it ever works.