"Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's chilling dramatization of the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, is a timely and important reminder of the agonizing human price of zealotry. It begins with sound alone, recordings of 911 operators offering empty reassurances to callers inside the Twin Towers, promising that help is on its way. It presses ahead as an espionage procedural, with scenes of harsh interrogation by U.S. agents, bomb attacks and firefight ambushes by Al-Qaida, and ultimately a cinema verité-style re-creation of the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on the Pakistani compound where the terrorist mastermind was shot and killed.

While it must be viewed as a work of fiction -- its portrayal of Abu Ghraib-style indignities practiced by CIA interrogators on their prisoners has drawn loud condemnation from Washington -- the film also gets a great deal right. Its representation of publicly reported events is solid. Screenwriter Mark Boal researched the story intensively, and presents it authoritatively. The film moves confidently, seemingly wise to the way that byzantine anti-terror intrigues were conducted over our heads and behind our backs.

This is a taut, crackling geopolitical thriller of a new sort. In years past, great incendiary European directors like Costa-Gavras ("Z") and Gillo Pontecorvo ("The Battle of Algiers") created stirring, fiercely partisan films, and Oliver Stone ("JFK") offered polemics from Hollywood. "Zero Dark Thirty," with its focus on the CIA manhunt for Bin Laden, is a closer cousin to David Fincher's "Zodiac."

It's all about what spies think they know and why they think they know it: procedure, informants, contradictory evidence, dead ends. It tracks the way intelligent people, sifting mountains of mind-numbing information in the hunt for a dark and dangerous menace, can become ghosts of their former selves. There's not much audience-pampering streamlining here. Watching the film, you feel awash with information. We're trusted to process it all, becoming part of the team as we watch, sharp-eyed, for the snippet that could become a breakthrough.

At the center of the action is Maya, a newly minted agent played by the stellar Jessica Chastain. She has no back story, no love interest, no real personality, no life outside her quest. Chastain gives us a deft portrait of the type of person who would follow this case down a rabbit hole. She's spooked by her first experience with extreme interrogation in which a field agent, Dan (a persuasive Jason Clarke), manhandles a suspect, Ammar (Reda Kateb), but she soon gets over it. In time, she's fetching the pail for waterboarding. If there's a chance that applying stress will yield usable information, she's for it. Some filmmakers would flash a title card reading "Hero" or "Monster" here. Bigelow and Boal present her as a do-gooder in a bad world, forcing us to deal with the moral confusion ourselves.

The bulk of the film consists of nuts-and-bolts detective work, with sidebars of bureaucratic infighting and sudden surprise attacks followed by long periods of tense cease-fire. The chase slows as interest in Bin Laden wanes and the anti-terrorism fight shifts focus. The film shows how urgent the quest remained for the agents still in pursuit. For them, Bin Laden remained America's Most Wanted.

The climax re-enacts the dead-of-night mission to Abbottabad from the SEALs' point of view, a masterstroke of sustained, unnerving tension. I wanted to crawl under my seat as I watched it. What distinguishes "Zero Dark Thirty" from rah-rah, let's kill some terrorists jingoism is its willingness to face some ugly facts.

The film opens and closes with the killing of innocents -- 3,000 massacred at the beginning and less than a handful of Bin Laden's relations gunned down in the nighttime raid. Maya wins, but she pays a price for it. She is as haunted and unsettled leaving the case as she was signing on a decade earlier. The emotional release that comes at the fadeout isn't a fist-pump, but a shudder. There is not a moment in this brilliant film that is conducive to peace of mind.

ccovert@startribune.com • 612-673-7186