Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty."

Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty." Credit: Columbia Pictures

To torture or not to torture? Despite what critics and pundits are saying, that is actually not the question being asked by "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's no-holds-barred re-creation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It arrives in theaters Wednesday already accused -- frequently by the left -- of justifying torture by showing that it yielded results. That's a shallow reading, though, of a movie that's asking much deeper questions.

"Zero Dark Thirty," like Bigelow's Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," is written by journalist Mark Boal, from what's being called "firsthand accounts." It mixes checkable facts with dramatic license, but "Zero Dark Thirty" has no overweening political agenda. Instead, it unfolds with the cool detachment of a documentary even in its most tense and gripping scenes.

Our heroine is CIA agent Maya, a burr-in-the-saddle type supposedly based on a real person and played with fiery focus by Jessica Chastain. In the years after 9/11, as America's horror fades, presidents come and go, regimes change and even the CIA's top waterboarder (a very good Jason Clarke) takes a desk job. But Maya remains, reminding the agency's nervous nellies (Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and others) that Public Enemy No. 1 is still alive. "I'm gonna smoke everybody in this op," she says without a shred of bravado, "and then I'm gonna kill bin Laden."

The final raid on the Abbottabad compound is a heart-pounder, but "Zero Dark Thirty" may go down in history for its excruciating opening sequence of a soiled detainee (Reda Kateb) being humiliated, stripped and waterboarded. The question isn't whether it worked. The question is how we as Americans feel about it, and "Zero Dark Thirty" leaves the answer up to you.

PLOT The hunt for Osama bin Laden, from the offices of the CIA to the Navy SEAL raid

CAST Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong


BOTTOM LINE You may not like Kathryn Bigelow's version of events, but this gripping, documentary-style thriller is a movie that needs to be seen.

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