"Zero Dark Thirty," an Oscar picture nominee and an American Film Institute movie of the year, is an intense cinema-going experience.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is nothing less than an account of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon and bin Laden's killing by United States Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.

Director Kathryn Bigelow apparently had access to classified information. That access, in itself, has caused controversy to swirl around "Zero Dark Thirty," one of those feature movies that has leaped from the media's movie review pages to the front pages to Congress.

One of the more damaging allegations against Bigelow is that her access to classified United States' government information about the mission and the film's representation of what is euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques" in helping to obtain crucial information from captured terrorists has compromised her objectivity as a film-maker.

While you and I may never know all of the facts behind the mission of "Zero Dark Thirty," with the title referring to the military term for 12:30 a.m., believed to be the start of the Team 6 raid, Bigelow has directed an extraordinary piece of cinema, which is not unlike that of a documentary in its depiction of what seems to be an insider's view of the "trade craft" during an important chapter in American history.

The first hour of "Zero Dark Thirty" is torture, literally and figuratively. The movie-goer is taken to several "Black Sites" in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. While the torture scenes are not as graphic as, say, that of a horror film, they are horrific in their detail and may make you squirm in your seat. There's almost a sense of "The Silence of the Lambs" to some of the scenes.

The middle portion of "Zero Dark Thirty" has to do with the CIA and other government agencies, entities and officials, including those in the administrations of President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush (with, for example, James Gandolfini portraying an unnamed CIA director) and their handling of the hunt for Bin Laden. This is TV's "West Wing" taken to new depths and heights, except it purports to be reality.

The final portion of "Zero Dark Thirty" depicts the tracking of couriers, the locating of the Bin Laden fortress in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the raid, capture and killing there of Bin Laden. These scenes are very dark and green in color, filmed as though seen through the night-vision equipment the soldiers are wearing. The sense here is that of the "Mortal Kombat" video game.

While one can't vouch for the factual accuracy, "Zero Dark Thirty" has the sense of authenticity. Bigelow (Oscar picture and director recipient, "The Hurt Locker"), directing from the Oscar nominated original screenplay by Mark Boal (Oscar screenplay recipient, "The Hurt Locker"), is a very capable film-maker with "Zero Dark Thirty" also an Oscar editing and sound-editing nominee and leaves no question in the viewer's mind that the mission to get Bin Laden was necessary. "Zero Dark Thirty" makes a James Bond movie look like "Mary Poppins."

There are many believable performances by the not well-known cast. Jessica Chastain, who is well-known, is a deserved Oscar actress nominee in her portrayal of Maya, a CIA agent. Her performance is at the center of the film. We feel her passion, her pain and her extreme nerdiness.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a must-see for students of American history, as well as for citizens who may have wondered what really took place in the mission to get Bin Laden. We may never really know. For now, "Zero Dark Thirty" seems to be one of the best accounts we have.

"Zero Dark Thirty," MPAA rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian) for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language; Genre: Drama, History, Thriller; Run time: 2 hours, 37 mins.; Distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: "Zero Dark Thirty" was filmed in India, Jordan and the United Kingdom.

Box Office, Jan. 25: "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" opened at No. 1, with $19 million, putting "Mama" back to No. 2, with $12.8 million, $48.6 million, two weeks;

3. "Silver Linings Playbook," $10 million, $69.4 million, 11 weeks; 4. "Zero Dark Thirty," $9.8 million, $69.9 million, six weeks; 5. "Parker," $7 million, opening; 6."Django Unchained," $5 million, $146.2 million, five weeks; 7. "Movie 43," $5 million; 8. "Gangster Squad," $4.2 million, $39.6 million, three weeks; 9. "Broken City," $4 million, $15.2 million, two weeks; 10. "Les Miserables," $3.9 million, $137.2 million, five weeks

Unreel, Feb. 1:

"Warm Bodies," PG-13: A zombie and a young woman form an unusual alliance in the comedy-horror film.

"Bullet to the Head," R: Walter Hill directs Sylvester Stallone in the action thriller about a New Orleans hitman and Washington, D.C., detective .

"The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia," R: The horror-drama film is all over the map in the tried-and-true house with a past plot line.

"Stand Up Guys," R: Fisher Stevens directs Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Christopher Walken and Julianna Margulies in the crime-caper comedy about aging con men reuniting for one last brouhaha.

Read previous movie reviews by Paul Willistein at the Times-News web site, tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com and on Facebook.

Four Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes