WASHINGTON — Even before its official release, “Zero Dark Thirty,” the new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has become a national Rorschach test on the divisive subject of torture.
The film’s unflinching portrayal of the Central Intelligence Agency’s brutal interrogation of Al Qaeda prisoners hews close to the official record, offering a gruesome sampling of methods like the near-drowning of waterboarding.
What has already divided the critics, journalists and activists who have watched early screenings is a more subtle issue: the suggestion that the calculated infliction of pain and fear, graphically shown in the first 45 minutes of the film, may have produced useful early clues in the quest to find the terrorist leader, who was killed in May 2011.
Such a claim is anathema to outspoken critics of the Bush administration’s decision in 2002 to resort to methods that the United States had for decades shunned as illegal. And a new, 6,000-page report on C.I.A. interrogations by the Senate Intelligence Committee, based on a study of some six million pages of agency documents, finds that brutal treatment was not “a central component” in finding Bin Laden, said the committee’s chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.
But the report, which the committee will decide whether to approve on Thursday, remains classified, with little likelihood that any of it will be public for months. It has already become fodder for a partisan fight, with Republicans denouncing it as flawed and incomplete. Nearly a decade after the C.I.A. is last known to have waterboarded a suspect, the American argument over torture remains unresolved and has lost little of its emotional potency, whether the spark is a blockbuster movie or a Senate report.
According to intelligence officials and the incomplete public record, detainees who endured varying degrees of physical force did tell their interrogators some truths, as well as half-truths and outright lies. What remains unprovable is whether — as F.B.I. agents with long experience questioning terrorists have argued — the same or better information might have been obtained without taking the morally and politically treacherous path the C.I.A. chose.
Mark Boal, the screenwriter of “Zero Dark Thirty,” which is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, said in an interview Wednesday that the movie was no documentary, though it is based on extensive research.