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The Case for … Zero Dark Thirty

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Written by Craig Kennedy

What do you do when you have, what I and many think, is the best American movie of the year and it also turns out to be the most controversial movie of the year? That’s Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty for those of you keeping score at home. In a vacuum, it probably doesn’t matter, but in the Oscar bubble, it could be the deciding factor between a win and a loss. The irony is that the source of its greatness and the source of the controversy are the same thing. It’s the film’s unwillingness to take a moral stance on the horrors it shows you that has everyone up in arms, but it’s also what transforms the film from simply being a good movie into something much more.

To be fair, it’s not simply Zero Dark Thirty‘s amorality that is troubling. That just compounds the problem of factual inaccuracy. Its detractors will argue specifically that the film makes the case that torture was an effective tool in finding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and that this is demonstrably incorrect and therefore dangerous. I’m still not convinced the film makes all that clear of a case, nor am I convinced that torture doesn’t or didn’t provide useful intelligence, despite what Congressional hearings on the matter have concluded. It’s almost impossible to prove a negative, but the argument that “torture doesn’t work” is a much cleaner and more compelling argument for anti-torture activists to make than “torture is wrong.” Here’s the thing though: even if you accept that Zero Dark Thirty is factually incorrect, it is still a powerful, brilliant film and perhaps the most important to come out of the “War on Terror” so far.

Whether you call it “torture” or you call it “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Zero Dark Thirty shows you up close and in detail the waterboarding, the abuse, the humiliation and the deprivations we subjected other human beings to in the name of justice. Seeing it played out on the big screen is much harder and more intense than simply reading about it in a newspaper and that alone makes Zero Dark Thirty an important film. However, by not taking a moral stand, by forcing the audience to decide for itself whether what it’s seeing is right or wrong, the audience is implicated in what’s happening. We have a stake in it and can’t just write it off as a few bad people doing bad things. The conversations and arguments that Zero Dark Thirty is inspiring on the internet and in op-ed columns all around the world are exactly the kinds of conversations we all should’ve been having with ourselves for the last decade. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have taken an intellectual idea and brought it home for everyone to see in all its horror and they’re forcing audiences to come to terms with it. You have to decide whether torture is right or wrong. It shouldn’t really matter whether it works or not.

If Zero Dark Thirty merely inspired conversation, it would be fine, but the sneaky thing about it is that it couches its intellectual time bomb within a supremely entertaining espionage/action thriller. The first two thirds follow CIA operative Maya and her team as they work for a decade piecing together the trail that will lead to the world’s most wanted man. It’s an ugly, disturbing trail, half of which exposes people behaving at their worst. The last third follows the Navy SEAL team on the gripping raid itself. Filmed seemingly in real time, the raid is thrilling, yes, but it’s also claustrophobic, frightening and deeply unsettling. As the team makes its way in the dark through the compound’s maze of passages amid the terrified screams of women and innocent children, we’re given what we instinctively want, revenge, but it leaves a sour taste in our mouths. From beginning to end, Bigelow expertly pushes our buttons while simultaneously punching us in the gut with reality.

As Mia, Jessica Chastain is the heart and soul of the film. Seemingly fragile at first, Mia turns out to be the toughest, most intense and most single-minded of all. Even as her superiors are beginning to doubt the wisdom of tracking bin Laden, let alone whether it’s even possible, she never wavers. She wants what we all wanted, but she’s also a flawed, frightening person. This is the kind of machine you need to do an ugly job and Chastain is utterly convincing. You root for her, but she also gives you pause.

There are a lot of good films in the running for Oscar this year and there are a lot of likable films, but with the possible exception of Lincoln, there are none that are so important to the here and now; none that so deeply resonate with our times while also entertaining the hell out of us. Yes, history may in fact show that Zero Dark Thirty is troublingly incorrect in the version of history it puts forth, but the controversy it has stirred up, regardless of how you feel about the issues it presents, is compelling and vital. Zero Dark Thirty takes the most important series of events in our lifetimes, it rips them out of the op-ed pages and then shoves them in our faces. This is what happened as best as we can understand it. Now, deal with it. If that’s not the best picture of the year, I don’t know what those words mean.