Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' electrifying new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, ZERO DARK THIRTY.
For much of the time I’ve been writing about the Oscars, we’ve lived in the post 9/11 America. I’d started my site in 1999, the same year of the Columbine massacre and the Bill Clinton impeachment. We thought the worst thing that was going to happen to us was Y2K knocking out computers across the globe. But on the morning of September 11, 2001, everything in this country changed.
My daughter was just three years old. She would grow up with my fear, and our collective fear, about school shootings, and terrorist attacks influencing almost every aspect of her life. It was also the beginning of the internet, although back then people like me were hooked up via modems, writing our HTML code by hand with maybe a couple of search engines, Amazon and Ebay. Back then, a lot of people were still afraid of it. They didn’t trust it with their financial information, their privacy, their news. To them, it was a hiding place for trolls and people who had escaped real life to find their way onto the virtual frontier.
The rise of the cultural revolution on the left started when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. The last big revolution had been in 1980, when Reagan had taken power. But now, there was something different happening. The first president who knew how to use the internet and especially social media to grow his base was a major influence on every aspect of American culture, including the Oscars. All presidents have an influence, but Obama was not just any president. He was second only to JFK in terms of cultural impact on the left.
It took a while for the film industry and the Oscars to finally catch up to the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They had to figure out what the eventual story of those wars would be. Eventually it became that they were unpopular, pointless wars that killed too many and wasted money. The Hurt Locker is the only Best Picture winner to deal directly with 9/11 and the wars that came after it. It was also the first win for a female filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow.
Zero Dark Thirty came out a few years later, after the Obama administration had killed Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind 9/11. The second Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal film to enter the Oscar race was not about those wars, however, though it was about 9/11. As we crest the 20-year mark of that awful day, as we look at who we were before and who we became after, the best film to watch is still, to my mind, Zero Dark Thirty. This is a complicated, unbiased, truthful look at the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the ultimate story of track and kill. Thankfully, looking back on it now — a film I’ve seen many times — I can find in it a more truthful version of what happened than one that might be sanitized for today’s easily offended audiences.
The film started out as one of the strongest contenders in the race. It was the film most buzzed in the early phase. Argo had played at Telluride and was the crowdpleaser coming out of it. Zero Dark Thirty was much more hard-hitting. Argo was more about an heroic rescue of hostages in Iran. But both films are relevant to what is happening right now and what will likely define, at least partly, the next 20 years.
What made Zero Dark Thirty unique was that it looked like the female director, Bigelow, might be coming in for a two-fer. A win just three years after her first historic win. But it didn’t go like that. It completely spiraled off the rails. That’s because Zero Dark Thirty depicted a kind of truth that many Americans did not want to know. The film itself, and the filmmakers, were sacrificed for the larger narrative that had to be true: that torture did not and could not have led us to find Bin Laden. The film draws a direct link, and makes no real statement about torture other than it being brutal and hard to watch. Bigelow certainly didn’t try to gloss over how terrible it was.
The movie holds its place in history because it doesn’t really sell itself as propaganda for or against the two wars that came in the wake of 9/11. It is focused instead on the mission to track and finally kill Bin Laden and the women who were obsessed with bringing him in. They both, and many in the film, and the country overall, took 9/11 extremely personally, much more personally then than many people do today.
So what was the big deal about Zero Dark Thirty? Why did Bigelow go from being a frontrunner to the film winning only Sound Editing? Well, because controversy took it down. And did so in a way that really foreshadowed what we call “cancel culture” now. Many people, outside and within the Academy, attacked Bigelow and Boal because they were angry about the film’s message, specifically about torture. But looking back on it now, that is why it remains a great movie. If it was not telling the truth, if it was in keeping with a desired narrative, it would be a waste of time.
The film takes place during two different presidential administrations and makes the point that the new one, Obama’s, wasn’t keen on their previous Bush administration torture methods. It’s subtle enough that you might not have noticed it watching it back then, but you surely notice watching it now.
We were a country that felt united for a time over an attack on our own soil. So much so that when Michael Moore spoke out against George W. Bush at the Oscars in 2002 he was booed. Of course, Moore has since been vindicated by some for being among the few to protest. But it also shows that back then the Academy did not take these kinds of speeches well. Note what he says:
“We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times with fictitious election results that elect a fictitious election president.” Watch how the audience responds. Watch now knowing everything we know about what the Academy has become, what the Left has become, and what the country has become.
Films stand the test of time when they tell the truth about history, more so than when they glorify it. That is why future audiences will always be able to look back on Zero Dark Thirty, and even The Hurt Locker, and see a film that depicts a country deeply involved in something it can’t control. Probably this isn’t the end of our relationship to Afghanistan, but regardless, this film will hold its place in time for getting that moment in our history exactly right.
I have now been writing about the Oscars through five presidents. To have lived through all of these eras – the impeachment era, the 9/11 era, the WMD/Iraq and Afghanistan era, the Hillary Clinton/Trump era, the second and third impeachment era, and now the Biden era – what you learn as you get older is that these events happen, you live through them and it’s then up to journalists and storytellers to position these events as we move through time. The only thing that remains constant is that sooner or later everything ends. The worst of things, the best of things.
It is interesting remembering where we came from and where we ended up, and how now the Academy faces its biggest challenge in my lifetime: how to make people still care. One of the ways to do that is for the film industry to continue to make movies as hard-hitting as Zero Dark Thirty, the kind of movies the Oscars were made on. History will remember it well.