Zero Dark Thirty

I finally saw Zero Dark Thirty today.  It is a brilliant work of art.  Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal told the story they wanted to tell and they told it vividly.  There were moments of pure surprise throughout the movie even if you knew what happened on the days spotlighted by the on screen description.  The final sequence, which is the raid on Usama Bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad, was one of the best action sequences you will ever see on film.  Oh yeah, every actor brought it.  From Jessica Chastain through the wonderful cameo by Mark Valley as the C-130 pilot taking Maya home each actor was at the top of their game.

The final scene with Maya on the plane is the “what’s next” moment.  If Ahab had killed Moby Dick and survived the encounter this is what it would have looked like.  Your whole life is wrapped up into this moment of triumph, but you don’t know what to do once you have won.

The movie became controversial mostly because that is what we do today.  Everything is political for a certain class of people in this country.  Every utterance by anyone in the public eye is parsed and dissected to find out the political meaning by both sides of the spectrum.  The reason this movie is controversial is torture.

Do I think this movie supports torture?  No.  Do I think this movie suggest that torture led to the capture of bin Laden? No.  The main argument against the people who think the movie is pro torture is when the torture scene occurs and how unflinching it is.

I remember September 11, 2001.  I remember how beautiful that day was.  I walked to work and remember thinking this is a perfect day, no clouds and no humidity and not a cloud in the sky.  I got in early and sat at my desk checking email and relaxing.  A coworker walked by and just asked as she headed to her office, “Did you hear about the plane crashing into the World Trade Center?”  I called up the washingtonpost.com and saw the image on the front page.  By the end of the day, I was in my apartment at 3 am watching the news when I finally broke down crying.

In that light, it makes since that the second scene of the movie, the scene that occurs after the haunting 911 calls from the World Trade Center played against a black screen, is of torture.  We were angry.  We were hurt.  We needed to strike back against anything and anyone we thought was responsible.  We were wounded animal striking wildly and violently at whatever we could touch.  We had to look into the abyss.  We had to walk through that valley.  If for no other reason than the psychic need for vengeance and to see that that blood lust would not be fruitful in the end.

To say torture got no useful evidence is probably wrong.  It probably did lead to some scraps of information, but nothing truly actionable.  In the movie, most of the information gained from torture led nowhere or worse led to people being killed.  The real work of the CIA analysts and operatives did not begin until after the torture stopped.

One of my favorite scenes is when George, Maya’s boss at the CIA, is in a meeting with the National Security Advisor.  George complains that he can’t get the proof he needs without the detainee and torture program.  The NSA looks at him and essentially tells him to be creative and do your job.

Those who oppose the movie on torture grounds are not frustrated with the movie as much as frustrated that no one in the US government tied to the detainee program that may have broken US and international law.  They will continue to be frustrated.  No president, whether he supports the use of torture or not, will make any decision that will tie his or his successors hands in the future.

So growing tired of yelling for the President of The United States to do something he is never going to do, they have turned their ire towards this movie.  I don’t think when Bigelow and Boal started writing this movie they had any intention of supporting or attacking torture.  I think they wanted to make a good movie about this particular moment in time.  They did that and that is how this movie should be judged. 

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