Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain is in line for an Oscar for her performance in Zero Dark Thirty.

"This is what defeat looks like," says CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke, TV's The Chicago Code) as he addresses an al-Qaida suspect at an undisclosed "black site". And if you were wondering what defeat looked like, rest assured that in an anything-goes holding cell it's not pretty.

This early interrogation might not have the forced urgency that Jack Bauer puts across with his "Tell me now!" demands in 24, but the scene is much more potent and scary for it. You have the feeling - and the hindsight to back it up - that this is the suspect's life for a long time to come. "In the end everybody breaks, bro," adds Clarke chillingly. "It's biology."

It's fitting then that the seemingly innocuous phrase Zero Dark Thirty does not, apparently, mean 12.30am, which could so easily have been the mission time of the film's final operation. According to most military sources it is used by both American and British soldiers to describe a time after darkness has fallen, when it is pitch black. This turns out to be a perfect moniker as Bigelow's film captures a time following 9/11 when America itself slipped into the darkness in an attempt to capture the extremists hiding there.

Party to this process is Maya (Jessica Chastain in Oscar-bagging form), who is witnessing her first debriefing. Wearing her best suit and a shocked expression, she shows the drive that will carry her through more than 10 years of non-stop chasing by suggesting Dan carries on the questioning when it looks like things have ground to a halt.

Described as a "killer" by her colleagues, she sets about tracking down America's Most Wanted - Osama bin Laden - with a focus rarely seen outside of computers programmed with a single function. Along the way she racks up time at other CIA black sites in Gdansk, Poland and Afghanistan, coolly steps over bodies at a bomb blast designed to kill her and her fellow countrymen and never ever takes her eyes off the prize.

Like Titanic, we know that at some point this film is going to crash into a particularly large iceberg. When the raid comes it's a surprisingly gung-ho affair, led by Chris Pratt in full-on comedy Parks and Recreation mode. Even as the tense operation almost falls at the final hurdle, his performance jars with the seriousness of it all.

Yet that can't hurt a film that is filled with so much horror, but never pulls its punches over the wider issues. "Where to?" is the question that hangs heavy at the end of the movie. It's one that America still has to answer, having dealt with its biggest bogeyman but failed to solve the broader problem.