Edelstein: "Zero Dark Thirty" no easy moral tale

Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a CIA analyst leading the hunt for terror leader Osama bin Laden. It is Maya's singular will and laser-focus that pushes through the agency's bureaucracy and tunnel vision to pursue leads that prove fruitful.
Sony Pictures

(CBS News) A controversial new film raises some troubling questions for our critic David Edelstein:

The kill-Osama thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" won't be in theaters nationwide until mid-January, but it has already driven White House officials, senators and even film critics to debate its depiction of the war on terror and the efficacy of "enhanced interrogation," by which I - and the Geneva Conventions - mean torture.

In outline, it's a standard revenge picture. It opens with 9/11, real audio of people in the World Trade Center. It closes with the attack on bin Laden's compound, when we nail the SOB.

Action movies often ask whether barbaric means justify noble ends and answer, "Yes, indeedy."

But director Kathryn Bigelow adds dissonant notes. The tone is impersonal, cool. The climactic assault shows SEALs pumping bullets into prone bodies, including a woman's. Nothing makes you go, "YEAH, BABY!" The torture is ugly and disgusting - it repels even the vengeful CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain.

But there's nooooo question "Zero Dark Thirty" says the CIA was led to the courier who led to bin Laden by illegal torture, and that anyone opposed was a wussy unwilling to go to what Dick Cheney called "the dark side."

Is it true?

The administration says no. So does Diane Feinstein, author Peter Bergen, and even some in the CIA.

Others say yes, among them screenwriter Mark Boal's CIA sources, and "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden.

But to say, as Bigelow and Boal have, that their position isn't pro-torture, they're just reporting the facts, is disingenuous. Even the context is pro-torture.

As a thriller, "Zero Dark Thirty" is phenomenal. It shows how dependent the system is on analysts pitching skeptical superiors, who pitch their superiors, who pitch the Commander in Chief. Chastain is amazingly vivid.

The final sequence is chilling in creating the illusion that You Are There.

But, is that enough? The war on terror might be the most significant operation of the young 21st century. It calls for more than pretend objectivity. It calls for moral scrupulousness.

You need to see it, though. You are a part of this debate.