A group of Navy SEALS prepare to raid Osama bin Laden's compound in "Zero Dark Thirty." Universal

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a breathtaking, heart-pounding account of the events leading up to the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound, a dramatic capture that defined President Obama's first term as U.S. president and marked a new, winning chapter in the war on terror. While most will remember where they were when they heard the news of bin Laden's death, the extraordinary details of the classified operation -- and the struggles of one determined CIA agent -- have been largely under wraps until now.

At the heart of director Kathryn Bigelow's “Hurt Locker” follow-up is Maya, a young, single-minded intelligence agent dogged in her pursuit of a courier she is convinced is the only link to bin Laden's hiding place. That all but a few of Maya's colleagues think she is full of hot air is just one of many obstacles standing between the sophisticated hunters and their equally sophisticated prey. Until now, the American public was largely unaware of the incredible risks taken by the U.S. government and, in particular, the U.S. Navy SEALs who raided the suspicious compound on what was little more than an educated hunch and the determined efforts of a cantankerous CIA operative. Beyond Maya, there were men and women who gave a decade of their lives (and in some cases, their lives altogether) to this near-impossible, needle-in-a-haystack search.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a masterful achievement in both style and substance. Working again with screenwriter Mark Boal, who penned “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow goes for the emotional jugular from the start, playing heartbreaking audio of 911 calls made from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. She then cuts sharply to a black ops interrogaton room, where Maya witnesses for the first time a colleague torture and humiliate a suspected terrorist believed to have ties to al Qaeda.

There has been much discussion about whether Bigelow is implicitly (or explicitly) endorsing torture in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Though it feels unfair to conclude that the director is a cheerleader for waterboarding, at times the film feels like an apology for the type of egregious interrogation tactics the U.S. military is notorious for. First, because the interrogation scenes, while not exactly sugarcoated, are relatively kind to the torturer and the viewer. Second, and more important -- President Obama's ban on the torture of detainees is drawn as a serious, and seriously resented, obstacle to critical intelligence.

While Boal and Bigelow don't draw a direct, straight line between information provided by detainees under duress and the discovery of bin Laden's hiding place, information gleaned in those ghastly interrogation rooms is a significant piece of the puzzle “Zero Dark Thirty” constructs.

This week, three U.S. Senate leaders publicly chastised Boal and Bigelow for the depiction of torture in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- himself a former POW subjected to torture -- accused the filmmakers of elevating the role of torture in the hunt for bin Laden. “We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden," the Senators said in a statement, complaining that the film purports to be a journalistic account, but is factually inaccurate.

Most civilians have no way of comprehensively fact-checking the events of "Zero Dark Thirty," but we do know that Bigelow was given controversially intimate access to CIA and Pentagon files (though White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that the filmmakers were provided with classified information.) Most civilians, at least those of the flag-waving American variety, will also have little reason to doubt any other aspect of the deceptively expansive chronology. With the exception of one sequence that is a little too heavy on foreshadowing, “Zero Dark Thirty” is judicious and spare, letting this extraordinary story unfold as it presumably happened, with little in the way of obvious embellishments. Boal, Bigelow and their impressively curated cast understand there is no need for added dramatic effect.

The filmmakers took a calculated risk in casting supporting actors who viewers are accustomed to seeing in an altogether different setting. It mostly pays off: Despite temporarily throwing the viewer off-balance, the cameos in “Zero Dark Thirty” are among the film's most welcome (and definitely the least nerve-wracking) thrills. James Gandolfini and Mark Duplass make late surprise appearances -- their unexpected presence is only a mild distraction from the breakneck narrative. And while the Oscar chatter has surrounded Chastain, whose steely performance is indeed worthy of praise, Jason Clarke as her field operative colleague should not be overlooked. Clarke's steady, no-frills portrayal of a complicated, conflicted and ultimately sympathetic man capable of doing terrible things to bad guys keeps “Zero Dark Thirty” from feeling too clinical. He makes no attempt to outplay Chastain in their scenes together, and his overall performance is more powerful for it. Let's hope “Zero Dark Thirty” does for him what “The Hurt Locker” did for Jeremy Renner.

Bigelow and Boal deserve recognition for refusing to warm Maya with the type of Hollywood feminization we have grown accustomed to seeing in our heroines, no matter how tough or high-ranking. Still, one wonders if the filmmakers went further than they needed to -- nothing would have been lost if Maya had been just a shade more likeable. In fact, it would have been even easier to root for her were it not for the film's insistence on presenting her with little nuance or dimension, or any agreeability. Still, this is only a minor quarrel, and Boal and Bigelow can be forgiven for erring perhaps a bit too far on the side of caution.

“Zero Dark Thirty” makes "Argo," the other better-than-decent CIA story that hit the big screen this year, look like amateur hour (sorry, Ben Affleck.) It's also the only excessively long film of 2012 (2 hours, 37 minutes) that keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. A must-see.