Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help you choose what to watch. This week’s pick is a new film from Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty.

Some movies are so vast in their landscape and ambitious in their reach that they become pieces of history. The movie year 2012 will be remembered for three lasting films that define moments in our national past. Joining the exceptional Lincoln and Argo in this trio is Zero Dark Thirty, a work with power so significant that it will last for generations.

Our memories of Sept. 11 are too clear; that day reminded us how cruel a world can be. As a nation we hungered for reasons; as a military power we ventured into nations and punished prisoners to get even. Still the villain behind it all remained elusive for years as our country’s intelligence experts used every possible approach to figure out how to find Osama Bin Laden.

Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker) would seem the ideal candidate to film the story of this hunt. Her earlier film focuses on the war in Iraq while this story primarily takes place in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan. She certainly is familiar, as a filmmaker, with military visuals and precision. And the focus on character she brings to her films would personalize a broad narrative of ultimate chase.

Still Zero Dark Thirty comes from a different dimension of this artist’s command. While The Hurt Locker delivers an intimate study of the impact of military destruction, the new film examines the ingenuity, persistence and fearlessness that heroic intelligence demands. Bigelow makes a film that is so big in what it wants to be, so deep in what it wants to say, and so compelling in its visual narrative, that we are captivated from its opening moments. The filmmaker’s daring use of her camera keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout the 157 minutes even though we know how the story will end.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal make the wise choice to focus the narrative on a composite character, Maya, reportedly based on several actual CIA operatives. This woman, as she grows from timid to determined, reluctant to resolute, brings a needed human dimension to the coverage of complex operational details. The focus on her emotional journey anchors the film’s journey through the many moves the US takes to put this puzzle together. And, when it is time for the final hunt, Bigelow uses her camera as if eavesdropping on this most significant historical moment. Nothing in her film feels forced or artificial; this is as close to “we are there” cinema as we can experience.

Bigelow also demonstrates, as she did with The Hurt Locker, how to capture strong performances against a broad background. Jessica Chastain becomes a leading contender for actress-of-the-year honors for her chilling characterization of a woman who puts aside her emotional reactions for a cause she believes to be larger than her. This versatile actress, so engaging a year ago in The Help while so devastating in The Tree of Life, reveals yet another side of her talent in a performance that is raw and real.

While some try to make this film controversial, the staying power of Zero Dark Thirty is larger than any political statements of this day. No matter where you were on Sept. 11, this film will reach you. Movies like this make us proud of an art form that preserves essential stories and a nation that dares to redirect history.

Film Nutritional Value

Zero Dark Thirty

* Content: High. Zero Dark Thirty reminds us what we can achieve when we listen to history and to each other.

* Entertainment: High. Kathryn Bigelow, while filling the film with detail, keeps the narrative clean and the visuals compelling to sustain the tension.

* Message: High. The film challenges us to look at our nation, and ourselves, and pay credit to those who dedicate their lives to protect us.

* Relevance: High. With what happens every day in our world, any chance to learn more about confusing parts of our world is essential.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film, talk with your older children about the choices the United States must make in such situations.

Zero Dark Thirty is rated R for strong violence including disturbing images, and for language. It runs 157 minutes.

5 Popcorn Buckets

The Movie Menu

What’s on your family’s movie menu this week? Choosing what films to offer is a lot like planning what meals to serve: You want to savor something you will enjoy at the same time you nourish the mind, heart and body. These nutritional movies are available this week on cable for you and your family.

The first weeks of the year offer a varied menu of movies on television if you can break away from all the football excitement of the season.

The late Blake Edwards, one of the most visually humorous creators behind the camera, serves an extravagant “road picture” with The Great Race from 1965. This exaggerated story about an around-the-world road race reunites the great Jack Lemmon with his partner-in-madness, Tony Curtis, from Some Like It Hot. Lemmon chews a lot of scenery as the villain while Curtis overacts all over the screen as the hero. Joining their lunacy is the always lovely Natalie Wood as the woman they adore. While the movie runs too long, and gets caught up in its own sense of humor, Edwards always knows how to entertain and serves a pie-throwing sequence that rates a movie classic. The Great Race airs on Turner Classic Movies at 11 p.m. Friday.

The incomparable Bette Davis reignited her career in 1962 when she teamed with screen rival Joan Crawford in the delightfully trashy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? This low-budget film, which surprised the industry with its success at the box office, introduced a new genre to the movies: the “slasher” movie starring middle-aged movie stars! Davis and Crawford have a field day as sisters living in an old house in Hollywood; years ago they were show business biggies until a tragic accident ended their careers. What unfolds on screen is great fun, especially with the tension the rival divas reportedly brought to the set. Look for this guilty pleasure on Turner Classic Movies, Saturday, at 8 p.m.

The wonderful Vivien Leigh won her second Oscar for Best Actress for her chilling portrayal of Blanche in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. Twelve years after her iconic performance as Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, the British actress returned to the South to create a much different version of a faded belle of the ball. Her Blanche breaks our hearts with the melancholy she conveys and the hope she forgets. Leigh’s exploration of the character’s madness delivers chills. Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter recreate their Broadway roles in this legendary screen adaptation. Streetcar airs on Turner Classic Movies at 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

The ever-talented Harrison Ford brings the story of Richard Kimble to the screen in The Fugitive, adapted from the television series of the 1960s. For the transfer to the big screen, director Andrew Davis wisely expands its plot and potential beyond what the original series portrayed. No longer is The Fugitive about a man seeking revenge; this Richard Kimble seeks redemption. Still, as a man trapped by the facts others create, Kimble has to be creative to try to free himself. Davis brilliantly takes us through a series of his larger-than-life choices, from jumping off a dam to escape capture, to saving a boy in a hospital while risking discovery, to marching in a parade through downtown Chicago. The film asks us to consider how we would cope if accused, and convicted, of a crime we did not commit; if, despite our claims of innocence, a judge or jury issued a sentence for what they believe we did. And, if we had the chance to escape, would we take it? If we found ourselves in the same situation, could we be as resourceful and persistent? Would our freedom matter as much? Look for The Fugitive on American Movie Classics at 8 p.m. Friday.

Serving nutritious movies can be as easy as turning on the television. And be sure, as you watch together, to share what you observe, question and consider. Watching movies together can prompt valuable family discussions.