"Zero Dark Thirty" opens with a black screen.

"Zero Dark Thirty" opens with a black screen. All that is heard are the desperate voices of those trapped in the Trade Center, placing calls to dispatchers and loved ones. Some are saying goodbye, others are pleading for help. No images have to be shown. The twin towers, burning and then collapsing, with all the heartbreaking loss, are seared in our memories. Forever. What Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal (screenwriter) construct in those first minutes is the context for all that follows.

And yet, "Zero Dark Thirty" is, ultimately, not about revenge, at least not the standard Hollywood version. It is about much more. Which is what makes this film so astonishingly good.

Consider the tension that is created whenever the sovereignty of truth is juxtaposed with the license of fiction. "Zero" is, of course, a work of fiction, no matter its powerful sense of verisimilitude. This technique also was used to superb advantage in "Lincoln."

The film also begs the question regarding means and ends (also a theme in "Lincoln"). What are we prepared to do, what lines are we prepared to cross if we believe the end unambiguously justifies the means?

Immediately, after the 9-11 calls are heard, the film cuts to a CIA black site where "enhanced interrogation" is taking place. Operatives, including Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Patrick (Joel Edgerton), are ruthlessly intent on getting information from a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), who, they believe, can provide a name that will link to Osama bin Laden.

Is he subjected to simulated drowning? Indeed. But this is offered without editorial content. Do these grim moments provide actionable intelligence? It's never clear. Did such interrogations take place? Of course. The means and the ends.

In essence, "Zero" is an intelligence procedural, focusing on nearly a decade-long hunt for the perpetrators of 9-11, beginning and ending with bin Laden. The hunt is led by a narrowly focused, obsessive agent, Maya, always remote and seemingly friendless. And it is she who moves from moments of terror to hours of analysis, sitting in front of a screen, unyielding in her eight-year commitment to fit small pieces into a larger, Byzantine puzzle. Finally, she concludes that the path to bin Laden resides with obscure and elusive couriers. And so the film moves deliberately forward with an unyielding and growing intensity.

We know how the movie ends: with the staging of a superbly executed raid on a compound that had no guarantees. But it is to Bigelow's credit that those final moments of the film do not feel victorious but are almost anticlimactic. But then this is not an action film; rather, it's a strange meditation on the ambiguity of the means and the certitude of the end. A place we approach at our peril.

"Zero" is, in the end, about the price paid in terms of our fundamental principles, not only for Maya and her cohorts, but for our nation.

The Impossible

On the morning of Dec.26, 2004, an earthquake occurred beneath the Indian Ocean creating a tsunami of unparalleled force, reaching a Thailand beachside resort, filled with vacationers.

A family of five — Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) — is relaxing by the pool.

And then a rumbling sound, at first curious, but then fearsome, is heard. Suddenly, with no warning, a wall of water breaches the beach, leveling all in its path. The family is, in a heartbeat, swept away.

It is a horrifying and devastating and gripping moment in "The Impossible" and well-done in the extreme. It took a year to prepare and endless hours to shoot using state-of-the-art CGI.

And so begins an ordeal of survival that is beyond imagination: Maria and Lucas are together, having found each other in the raging torrents of water. Both are injured, Maria grievously. Watts' performance is astonishing, wrenchingly fine. Her character is the fulcrum of the film, and she portrays the character with power and subtlety. An aside: She has been nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG award.

The film is split between terror and resolve and between Henry, with the two youngest boys, and Lucas and Maria. Whether the five will survive is not self-evident, at least not in act one. Their tenacity is endlessly tested, never sentimentalized, and never overshadowed by a tsunami that killed some 300,000 people throughout Southeast Asia.

"The Impossible" is remarkable filmmaking, a breathtaking story, one that relentlessly moves forward as Maria and Henry and the boys are asked to do more than they seem capable of, so fragile is their situation.