It's a gripping, you-are-there drama about the U.S. conflict in the Mideast just like director Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-sweeping "The Hurt Locker." In a way, this one has even more relevance, though, since viewers are rooting for its triumphant outcome instead of dreading America's horrifying involvement in a war we can't win.
However, "Zero Dark Thirty" is presented more as a docu-drama, which gives it a kind of emotional detachment. It's not another "Argo." It doesn't have that hysterical pacing of a thriller. It's got more of an art-house aura.
That means it will probably do well with critics, who can be its Oscars champion, just like they were for "The Hurt Locker." "Zero Dark Thirty" is just the kind of flick that could win New York Film Critics Circle, but it will have a disadvantage at the Oscars.
It's not going to nail as many nominations as "Les Miserables" or "Lincoln," and maybe fewer than "Argo" and "Django Unchained," too. That could hurt it since the movie with the most nominations wins Best Picture about two-thirds of the time.
Expect "Zero Dark Thirty" to snag bids for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, Film Editing and Music Score, and maybe Cinematography and Sound Editing, but it's not heavily favored to pop up in other crafts races.
Jessica Chastain is a serious rival for Best Actress. Having proven herself as a past nominee ("The Help"), she's now at the perfect point in her career for recognition. And she's lovely. That's important considering The Babe Factor usually decides the winner.
But she's up against a few other babes this year, most notably Jennifer Lawrence, who is more emotionally expressive as a bipolar nympho in "Silver Linings Playbook." By contrast, Chastain is mostly deadpan in "Zero Dark Thirty." She's fiercely intent upon nabbing Osama bin Laden, yes, but she doesn't flash the kind of emotional fireworks that voters usually reward.
The reviews are already pouring in for "Zero Dark Thirty" and they're good. Todd McCarthy gives it a rave in Hollywood Reporter.