Imagine America’s reaction if a country like Iran released a major motion picture where nearly a third of the film depicted the torture of American soldiers as a necessity to achieve an important military victory. Imagine the film was released worldwide, nominated for awards and praised for its quality. Imagine that the film was not entirely fictitious—it was based on real accounts, with real soldiers who had living family members.
What would our reaction be? There would likely be a national meltdown. Fox News would catch fire due to the heat generated from outrage. Congress might come together to publicly condemn the film. It would certainly dominate the news cycle for weeks. And yet, a film like “Zero Dark Thirty” is different only in that the protagonists are American and the enemies are members of terrorist organizations. Is a film like this wise? Is it any wonder that we are hated in certain parts of the world?
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a film about vengeance under the guise of preventing terrorist attacks. It is well made and well acted, a slick Hollywood production about the operations that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. But this isn’t a film made to inform—it’s not a documentary; it’s a fictionalized narrative of actual events, with potentially classified information supplied by the CIA and other sources, for the purpose of entertaining Americans and reminding the world of the reach of the last superpower. It’s a victory lap.
“Zero Dark Thirty” stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a CIA operative recruited out of high school for the sole purpose of tracking Osama bin Laden. We see her watching interrogations, participating in meetings, floating potential locations and contacts by a sea of staff members. She is unrelenting in her search, taking all leads seriously and supporting any measures that might obtain her goal. The search takes 10 years, through multiple bombings and guard changes, and yet Maya remains resolute in her belief that bin Laden is the source of all terrorism and that attacks will stop once he is dead. She makes no mention of capture, of trial, of justice. She is the hand of the executioner and will strike as such. At the end, when the compound is discovered, she is certain he is there. Not because of overwhelming evidence, but because of her gut feeling. It’s as American as apple pie.
The film is filled with recognizable actors, including Joel Edgerton and James Gandolfini. The latter portrays the unnamed CIA director, but anyone paying attention recognizes Gandolfini as Leon Panetta. It is not simply a movie without an agenda. It believes in itself as much as Maya believes in her mission. The filmmakers want to excuse questionable methods of interrogation by linking them to powerful results. Whether this is true or not is up for debate—there are Senate hearings on the topic already scheduled.
While Katherine Bigelow describes her method as journalistic, her approach is much more emotional and sensational. If it’s journalism, it has a distinct yellow tint. For instance, the film begins with actual recordings of 9-1-1 calls during the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. The film wants to begin by emotionally charging the audience so that they will accept the barbarism that comes later. The approach is borderline manipulative, not especially careful or thoughtful.
My reservations about the film prior to seeing it were confirmed. I wasn’t expecting an apologist film on the subject of torture, but I felt that the events depicted were too recent to be done tactfully. “Zero Dark Thirty” shows a country still entrenched in the idea of Manifest Destiny. We aren’t seeking land, but we are divinely correct in all things. All ends are justified. It’s an uncomfortable thought. And yet, it’s one that will be celebrated—”Zero Dark Thirty” is nominated for Best Picture and may win. I could do with less sabre-rattling and more introspection. Let’s hope the Academy agrees.