The early criticism of "Zero Dark Thirty," the gut-churning account of the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, has focused rightly on some of its most memorable and vital scenes: Those early in the film of agents torturing informants. In the movie, the torture works. In real life, not nearly so much. Three senators who reviewed classified information while on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence sent a letter to Sony Pictures stating that, contrary to the film, none of the tips the CIA received that led to learning the name of bin Laden's courier, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti), came through "coercive interrogation techniques."
Because the film does show torture as a pragmatic if awful implement of those interrogations, people have tried to ask the filmmakers — director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, collaborators previously on "The Hurt Locker" — why the hell they'd depict torture as being more productive than it was. When "Zero Dark Thirty" premiered in Washington, Bigelow and Boal slunk out early, behind a retaining wall of bodyguards, rather than answer reporters' questions.
The implications of tacitly praising torture are profound. Exactly what the United States is willing to do to human beings in order to meet military objectives is a serious question, and the impact of "Zero Dark Thirty," which is up for Best Picture among its five Oscar nods, stands to cast a long shadow over that popular discussion. It doesn't help that the CIA has acknowledged destroying tapes of interrogations and that America generally is happy to be kept in the dark on such matters. As a Human Rights Watch counterterrorism advisor recently wrote in Foreign Policy: "We would not even be having this debate, and this film probably would not have even been made in the way it was, had the U.S. government not gone to such great lengths over the past 11 years to cover up the tracks of its crimes and bury the facts."
What the movie gets right, at least for all appearances, is its depiction of torture as a nasty, brutish, dehumanizing slog for both the detainees and the interrogators. And once "Zero Dark Thirty" gets moving, it's just an overall ripping docudrama. Jessica Chastain has an Oscar nod for her turn as Maya, a CIA agent in Pakistan who for almost 10 years doggedly chases leads in pursuit of bin Laden, even as his influence wanes and he becomes a relative afterthought among the other intelligence brass. Jason Clarke plays a waterboarding field agent who moves up the ranks; Jennifer Ehle is another in-country CIA pal of Maya's. Among the few characters with publicly known names are Kyle Chandler as Joseph Bradley and James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta. Mostly, this is a tribute to nameless spooks.
Spoiler alert: That courier of bin Laden's, once found, inadvertently led the CIA to the gates of the infamous compound that Navy SEALS stormed on May 2, 2011. The final series of events as they appear in the film are positively gripping; the siege of the compound, complete with the shooting of bin Laden and digital photos of his corpse, is meticulously rendered, playing in real time like the world's most infamous episode of "Cops." But then, the entire movie plays as an extended infomercial on why you don't want to mess with America.
The power of "Zero Dark Thirty," despite its often dense dialogue and its tripodless nausea-cam cinematography, is that it yanks the audience through a chapter of recent history that we cannot help but find fascinating. The stakes are high, and we know them intimately. Anyone who sees "Zero Dark Thirty" will recall its depictions of events when trying to imagine what that compound raid was like, or what life in Pakistan for American operatives is like, or what life for suspected terrorists is like in the secret CIA prisons that were set up around the world after 9/11.
The risk for history is that this film, for all its authenticity, leads us to believe it's showing events as they truly were. It may be close, but "Zero Dark Thirty" is still just a movie, a work of unsettling fiction that shouldn't make us any more comfortable with the choices that were made in our names.