Bin Laden search makes a taut drama

Op-ed columns and Senate subcommittees can debate whether “Zero Dark Thirty” inaccurately portrays the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – that’s “torture” to most English speakers – in the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Here on the entertainment pages, the focus should be, “Does it work as a movie?” And the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

The political drama surrounding the movie has overwhelmed that question, in part because the argument has been going on at least a month before most moviegoers had any opportunity to see the film for themselves (it expands to about 25,000 theaters nationwide on Friday). Then again, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who teamed three years ago on the Academy Award winner “The Hurt Locker,” courted some of the scrutiny by emphasizing in interviews their rigorous research and adherence to the facts.

But the reason “ZD30” has sparked such a fervent reaction isn’t that it depicts torture as a component of the effort to find bin Laden; it’s that it doesn’t tell audiences how they should feel about that.

Most movies that deal with moral, philosophical or political issues play out the arguments on both sides through the characters, usually guiding the view toward one point of view (see last week’s release “Promised Land” for a prime example).

There is no debate, no hand-wringing here. It acknowledges that these techniques existed and allows viewers make up their own minds whether they were necessary, whether they were effective, whether the ends justified the means. How adult and how refreshing that is.

While torture has dominated the conversation about the movie, it plays a small part in the story, which spends the first two-thirds of the movie exploring the facts, false leads and investigative techniques that led to pinpointing bin Laden’s location.

The story is told primarily through the experiences of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a composite character based largely on a current CIA agent. While others are skeptical, Maya clings to a kernel of information gleaned from one of the prisoners subjected to those enhanced interrogation techniques – the name of a possible courier for bin Laden.

How that bit of information ultimately leads to bin Laden, and how much persuasion the government needs to act on the information (following the faulty WMD intelligence that helped lead to the Iraq War) is turned into a gripping procedural that unfolds like a great mystery, even if the viewer ultimately knows how the story ends. In many ways, “Zero Dark Thirty” is similar in style to David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” only the stakes are bigger.

“ZD30” doesn’t spend much time lingering on the private lives of its characters, who largely are defined through their jobs. If anything, that approach makes Chastain’s job harder, but she is able to flesh out Maya as a person instead of just a storytelling device. She provides the focal point the story needs and conveys both Maya’s tenacity during the investigation and the sacrifice it entailed.

The casting is strong throughout, from Jason Clarke as a tough interrogator and Kyle Chandler as the CIA’s cautious chief of station in Islamabad to small but memorable appearances by Mark Duplass as a CIA agent in Langley and James Gandolfini, who is playing Leon Panetta, even if he isn’t identified that way in the credits.

The final third of the movie is a recreation of the infiltration of compound where bin Laden was hiding by Navy SEAL Team Six. Shot primarily from the point of view of the SEAL members, it immerses the viewer in the mission and creates a palpable tension.

It makes for an engrossing film that makes questions of what is fact and what is artistic license irrelevant while the story is playing out.