But “Zero Dark Thirty” wasn’t created in the conventional way, whereby filmmakers option a series of articles or a book about the event and then dramatize it for the screen. Instead Boal, a former embedded journalist who wrote the Iraq war movie “In the Valley of Elah” and won an Oscar for Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” did his own reporting for “Zero Dark Thirty,” interviewing military and intelligence officials and operatives with intimate knowledge of the operations that resulted in bin Laden’s death in May 2011.
Because of its unconventional provenance, “Zero Dark Thirty” is arriving on the scene earlier than most feature-film accounts of recent history, subverting the usual rituals by which consensus is created, by journalists, politicians and pundits, and eventually by historians and purveyors of popular culture.
The upending of the opinion-making hierarchy has sent its denizens into a swivet. When he got wind of the project, House Homeland Security Committee chief Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) called for investigations into Boal’s access to classified information, expressing suspicion that “Zero Dark Thirty” would be a thinly veiled endorsement of President Obama in an election year. Obama, it turns out, is barely mentioned in the film, which has no obvious partisan ax to grind. But now Boal and Bigelow are under scrutiny for their depiction of torture, which some observers think is shown as yielding crucial, high-value information in bin Laden’s eventual apprehension. (The film begins with a graphic scene of a prisoner being waterboarded, an episode that doesn’t yield actionable intelligence directly but possibly weakens him enough to be manipulated later.)
As “Zero Dark Thirty” has begun to be screened in previews, it’s become something of a policy proxy, a vehicle for debate about Bush-era detainee programs, “enhanced interrogation” techniques and black sites that were ignored or never fully entertained by many Americans at the time. As Boal and Bigelow gather critics’ plaudits and awards (“Zero Dark Thirty” earned four Golden Globe nominations Thursday, including best film), the movie itself has entered a fascinating parallel conversation — part food fight for cable-news channels desperate for post-election fodder, part valuable (if belated) civic debate.
“So . . . @annhornaday making Zero Dark Thirty her #1 movie of the year makes her support torture and overall evil,” read a message that appeared on my Twitter feed this week, while my e-mail inbox filled with offers to interview think-tankers and other experts on torture (who haven’t seen the movie). On the MSNBC show “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews asked New York film critic David Edelstein whether terrorism can be defeated by “playing by gentlemanly rules.” Edelstein hesitated. “You’re asking a film critic?” he inquired incredulously.