WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There were journalists in droves, glasses of wine proffered by waiters and hors d'oeuvres devised by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck at the Washington premiere of a movie about the CIA, but prominent agency officials were nowhere to be seen.
Although official records show the spy agency cooperated generously with the makers of "Zero Dark Thirty," which dramatizes the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, the movie's graphic depictions of torture have made it a political hot potato of the kind Washington thrives on but which mystifies Hollywood.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, is among those attacking the film, which in its opening scenes suggests the interrogation methods produced information that helped the CIA find bin Laden.
Feinstein's committee has launched a review of CIA dealings with the film's director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.
Introducing the film on Tuesday evening, Bigelow said the Capitol Hill criticism was, "First of all...surprising, but I also respect their opinions and I think that unfortunately the film was kind of mischaracterized."
Boal mused about the fuss over a movie that has not even opened yet in theaters nationwide and noted the movie makes clear that many different intelligence-gathering methods led to the discovery of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Outside the premiere, at Washington's Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue between Capitol Hill and the White House, a line of protesters dressed as detainees in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, held signs denouncing torture.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is not unkind to the CIA: it shows the extraordinary lengths operatives and analysts went to find the al Qaeda chief, with several dying during the manhunt.
A person close to the filmmakers confirmed that invitations to the screening had been sent to CIA officials but it was not apparent that any had attended.
The CIA had no immediate comment.
The absence of identifiable CIA officials at the event contrasted sharply with the audience at a Washington screening in October of "Argo," which depicts how agency operatives and Canadian diplomats smuggled a group of U.S. diplomats out of Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis.
The Argo premier was attended by then CIA director David Petraeus, his deputy (and current acting CIA chief) Michael Morell as well as other senior intelligence officials. Pictures of Petraeus with the actor Bryan Cranston are posted on the Internet.
One U.S. official familiar with the matter said because of the political heat surrounding "Zero Dark Thirty," intelligence officials who were invited probably opted to stay home.
"Given all the political nonsense surrounding the movie, folks likely decided to wait for it to come out on cable on-demand," the official said.
The CIA wasn't always so stand-offish toward the movie.
Agency documents released to the conservative group Judicial Watch showed that senior officials at both the CIA and the Pentagon, including Morell and Michael Vickers, now the Pentagon's intelligence chief, met with Bigelow and Boal while they were developing the film.
Of course, no one can say there were no spies in the audience on Tuesday night. They could have been under cover.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson