Why Zero Dark Thirty Is Not Your Usual Hollywood Fare

The depiction of Navy SEALs was deadly accurate — and should be celebrated.

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Columbia Pictures

Joel Edgerton as squadron team leader Patrick in Zero Dark Thirty

As this week’s TIME cover story details, the movie Zero Dark Thirty has unleashed a controversy over the extent to which torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” were used in the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden. While I can’t comment on the veracity of the movie’s portrayal of how that investigation unfolded, I can say that the depiction of the Navy SEALS preparing for the raid on Bin Laden’s compound and conducting the mission was quite accurate.

(MORE: Is Washington Overreacting to Zero Dark Thirty?)

To start with, the actors who portrayed the SEALs themselves definitely received some expert guidance in capturing the mentality of the “team guy,” from their light-heartedness while waiting for training to begin to the relaxed quiet that came over them after boarding the helicopter to set off on their mission. The mood on the helicopter was almost serene, but this was not dramatic license. That’s what it’s like on real missions. Some SEALs catch a bit of sleep, some pray, some go over mental check lists about the breaching that may have to be done, the layout of the residence, or the possibility of a quick reaction force coming up on them during the raid. They seemed somewhat nonchalant, but these guys were more than ready as they had conducted hundreds of similar raids.

(MORE: Seven Secrets of Zero Dark Thirty)

Once the team landed at the compound, the filmmakers continued to be very accurate. They revealed many of the basic SEAL tactics but did not disclose any sensitive information to the public. The handling of the downed helicopter, for example, as well as how “non-threats” (women and children) are treated was very real. Even placing two shots in every dead target to confirm a “kill,” getting facial photos of Bin Laden, and finally collecting all the intelligence including files, laptops, and hard drives was dead-on accurate.

In the end, for me, Zero Dark Thirty shows the might and reach of the U.S. military and especially the Navy SEALs. Amidst all the debate, let’s not forget how impressive it is that a handful of commandos could conduct a raid of this magnitude and return without any casualties or real complications. And that wasn’t just a Hollywood ending.

MORE: Read TIME’s cover story, “Art of Darkness,” by Jessica Winter