My wife is away for a few days, and I took the opportunity to go to the movies, something she rarely wants to do. I had been wanting to see Zero Dark Thirty, as I had kept track of many of the events chronicled in the film. Don’t take my word for it, but “Zero Dark” is an excellent, challenging, difficult, and sobering film.
Many who have not seen it might think first of the detainee torture portrayed in the first 30 minutes. Much was made of it, with arguments that depiction of torture without an explicit repudiation amounted to condoning the practice. I would argue, as Director Kathryn Bigelow does, that portrayal does not automatically mean endorsement. Also, to my eye the film suggests that not only is torture a repugnant act, it is ineffective, as information is only obtained from detainees when they are relatively well treated.
“Zero Dark” was the early front-runner for Best Picture, but as we know was beaten to the post by “Argo”. I didn’t watch the Oscars, and I haven’t seen “Argo” (see aforementioned lack of movie-going opportunity), but I suspect that “Argo” is a well packaged, more typical action movie story line, though it too is based on a true story. My sense is that what caused “Zero Dark” to lose Best Picture is the same thing that makes it such an important, challenging film: the attempt to truthfully portray how messy, violent, and demoralizing the “Global War on Terror” is. In short, just as many people don’t want to know how their chicken gets from farm to table, people do not want to know in detail what our service members endure in order to prevent our enemies from repeating the attacks of 2001-2007. “Zero Dark” spares the viewer very little.
Finally, one other thing that the film did well. The last scene reenacts the takedown of UBL’s compound, and shows the SEAL who actually shot Bin Laden shaken and dazed by what he had done. Likewise, the movie ends with Jessica Chastain defeated, demoralized, and lost as she flies back to the US after the raid. I remember when I heard that UBL had finally been killed, and I also remember feeling bewildered that there was so much public jubilation. My sense is that, while UBL certainly had it coming, putting two 5.56 rounds in anyone’s head from close range is a solemn business and should not be cause for mass celebration. The final message of the film is the right one: this isn’t and probably never will be over.