“You know, I’m glad that it was an Italian,” said Panetta, who has often spoken about his Italian-American heritage.
Panetta declined to offer a critique of Gandolfini’s performance, but joked: “Somebody came up to me and said, I saw you in that movie, but you lost a lot of weight.”
Panetta gave his tacit backing to Zero Dark Thirty, calling it a “good movie” – although he warned that the tale of the manhunt for Bin Laden history had to be simplified for the big screen.
“It’s a movie,” Panetta said. “And it’s a good movie. But I lived the real story,” he said in an interview.
Panetta, who is due to step down as US defence secretary this month, said the film should not be seen as a historical account of the real-life manhunt, which concluded while he was head of the CIA from 2009 to 2011.
But Panetta indicated that the Oscar-nominated film did convey some sense of the years of legwork it took the CIA to track down the Al-Qaeda mastermind to a hideout in Pakistan.
“I think people ought to make their own judgements. There are parts of it that give you a good sense of how the intelligence operations do work. But I also think people in the end have to understand that it isn’t a documentary, it’s a movie.”
The film, starring Jessica Chastain as a relentless CIA officer, suggests that torture and abuse of some suspects helped generate information that led to the May 2011 raid that ultimately took out bin Laden.
The portrayal has sparked criticism from some senators, rights advocates and even the acting head of the CIA, Michael Morell.
But Panetta said harsh interrogation methods, including water boarding or simulated drowning, did play a role in locating bin Laden, though not a decisive one.
“The whole effort in going after bin Laden involved 10 years of work, in piecing together various pieces of intelligence that were gathered. And there’s no question that some of the intelligence gathered was a result of some of these methods,” he said.