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Movie Review: 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Part review and part discussion of the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, one of the best films of 2012 now in wide release.

The manufactured controversy that has surrounded Zero Dark Thirty since before its release likely cost director Kathryn Bigelow an Oscar nomination.

I can't say for certain that's the reason she was inexplicably omitted from the nominees (and it's odd that screenwriter Mark Boal did get nominated), but I can't honestly think of any other explanation.

Say what you will about the Academy Awards (I fully understand that going nomination-less says nothing about the quality of any given film), if this is the reason Bigelow was passed over, it's a shame.

I've read several head scratching articles claiming ZD30's depiction of torture is inaccurate. I've read articles claiming the film advocates for and even glorifies torture. I cannot fathom these responses.

I recently read an op-ed by filmmaker Alex Gibney in The Huffington Post claiming that the film's conclusions regarding torture are "dangerous."  Honestly, I think it's Gibney's conclusions that are off base. 

Gibney focuses, in large part, on what the film doesn't depict regarding torture. This, to me, is an odd argument considering the film is not trying to be a point by point recounting of the history of torture over the last decade. 

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization. It's not a documentary. That it claims to be based on first-hand accounts (which it no doubt was) and that it uses an intimate hand-held camera do not change the fact that this is still fictional to a degree.

No film based on history that I'm aware of is entirely historically accurate. Just this year, Ben Affleck's Argo took noticeable artistic liberties, yet was met with nowhere near this level of uninformed criticism. I understand that story wasn't as topically relevant. But the focus on one perceived discrepancy and subsequent misinterpretation while ignoring filmic merit is ludicrous. The worst that can be said of that choice by the filmmakers was that it was cinematic oversimplification, but that's nothing new when it comes to "based on" films.

The controversy behind ZD30 initially stemmed from unconfirmed and disputed reports that Bigelow and screenwriter/journalist Mark Boal were given access to classified material. While that may have died off, controversy picked up again when Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein, among others, claimed that the film depicted torture as a necessary incident to the capture of Osama bin Laden.

There's only one problem - the film does no such thing. Notwithstanding, these preconceived notions continue to be discussed. Just recently, the acting director of the CIA responded to this issue by acknowledging that torture, although the government developed some fancy titles to describe it, was, in fact, a part of the hunt for "UBL," as were many other sources. This is exactly what the film depicts.

Does it show torture leading to information? Yes. Does it depict torture as the only way to obtain this information? Without becoming too much of a spoiler, it does the exact opposite. I actually think it's arguable that when viewed as a whole, the film suggests that all necessary information is and was obtainable elsewhere, placing a serious cloud over the actual need for such practices. We see these brutal scenes of torture (does a film that makes you cringe and feel awful for the tortured really glamorize torture?) through the eyes of our protagonists, who, in their obsessed efforts to hunt down Osama, probably did feel that "enhanced interrogation techniques" were an asset.

Are we to believe that nobody at that time felt this way? Don't be naive. Studies have since firmly put the effectiveness of torture into question, but clearly there was a point in time when it was believed that information could be gained from such activities. Otherwise, why would we have engaged in them? That the decision was made to leave Zero Dark Thirty morally ambiguous from the point of view of most of the characters we meet while trusting audiences to reach their own conclusions regarding the true cost of such activities is one of the truly commendable aspects of the film. Maybe this trust was misguided.

It's a shame that this topic even needs to be addressed, as Bigelow's film is nothing short of terrific. The film operates on two opposite yet intertwined levels: it's depiction of the frantic 10-year search for Osama bin Laden is the definition of large scale, encompassing the better part of a decade and introducing us to countless characters who come and go over the course of the near three hour runtime. Yet we see this epic through a very intimate central character study. Jessica Chastain's Maya has a lot in common with Jeremy Renner's character from Bigelow's previous The Hurt Locker, but it's a much more complete arc. We're introduced to Maya as she's relocated to Pakistan in 2003, and we remain with her virtually throughout.

We see her change from the "green" rookie, hesitant about participating in the "enhanced interrogation" her colleague Dan (a scarily good and overlooked Jason Clarke) leads, to the seasoned pro, numb from her experiences and literally obsessed with finding bin Laden. Maya has devoted so much of her life to what at times seemed an impossible mission that the culmination of her efforts are not met with personal joy or elation, but with an exhausted exhale. This isn't a celebration, it's a relief. 

While the final forty-ish minutes of Zero Dark Thirty (an extended sequence that could operate as a short film of its own) are devoted solely to the raid on the bin Laden compound, a good majority of the film is pure procedure. But the hallway conversations, file combing and video watching is nonetheless compelling. Even the final raid sequence takes on a procedural feel (it's also depicted as a far more drawn out and problematic mission than the media has previously portrayed). It's a testament to Bigelow and her actors that the intensity of Zero Dark Thirty never wanes even at times when those on screen are literally and figuratively turning their wheels.

The levied criticism has come from both sides of the political spectrum. It seems as if Bigelow and Boal have created a truly apolitical film, and that some people just don't know how to handle that.


10/11

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