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Zero Dark Thirty, a hard-as-nails blinders-off view of War on Terror

Published April 20. 2013 09:02AM

I missed this film the first time around and finally caught up with it, thanks to re-release in the wake of the awards season. The intervening months were an interesting time for this movie. It debuted to rave reviews, quickly becoming the "film to beat" at the Oscars. Then the tide turned, as critics zeroed in on the "Zero Dark Thirty" torture scenes. Emblematic is the Jane Mayer article in December 14th's New Yorker. "At the same time that the European Court of Human Rights has issued a historic ruling condemning the C.I.A.'s treatment of a terror suspect during the Bush years as 'torture,' a Hollywood movie about the agency's hunt for Osama bin Laden, 'Zero Dark Thirty'-whose creators say that they didn't want to 'judge' the interrogation program-appears headed for Oscar nominations. Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?"

No doubt you can guess Mayer's answer to this nearly rhetorical question. "[W]hether torture 'worked' was far from the most important question about its use. I've seen the film and, as much as I admired Bigelow's Oscar-winning picture 'The Hurt Locker,' I think that this time, by ignoring the full weight of the dark history of torture, her work falls disturbingly short."

I write this review on the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. Would I have engaged in a bit of torture to gain the information that could have saved eight-year-old Martin Richard's life? Yes, I believe I would have. Stone me if you must.

Shortly after screening "Zero Dark Thirty," I watched "Syriana," a 2005 film about CIA "black ops" efforts to reverse the decision of a Gulf principality to do business with the Chinese at the expense of an American oil company. My wife remarked at the end of the movie, "This doesn't make the CIA look very good." I agreed and added that this is a shame, because the agency was the real hero, doing the dirty work that helps ensure a reliable supply of $3.50/gallon gasoline at my local station.

In "Zero Dark Thirty," Director Kathryn Bigelow gives us another hard-as-nails, blinders-off view of the War on Terror. It's a great companion piece to "The Hurt Locker," which I also reviewed in this space. War is suffused with moral ambiguity, she seems to say, but it also is unequivocally addictive. The heroic explosives expert in her Oscar-winning 2008 film quickly loses his identity when he returns home from his mission.

The heroine of "Zero," a persistent CIA analyst, played by the nominated Jessica Chastain, is equally at a loss in the movie's final scene. Osama is dead. Her decade long quest is over. She boards a plane. The pilot tells her she must be important, because she has the craft to herself. "Where do you want to go?" he inquires. She sits dumbfounded. She has no answer.

Chastain, like Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker," plays a driven professional, dedicated entirely to her mission. The playing out of that dedicated search for the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks produces a taught thriller of a film. Even though we know the ending, we are on the edges of our seats once again, as with Bigelow's earlier Best Picture.

Chastain is supported by a strong cast that includes many familiar faces but no big Hollywood names. The other agents, the Navy Seals, and the wigs back in Washington who have to roll the dice that Osama is where Chastain's analyst thinks he is, all come off as real, three-dimensional participants in what was in real life a gutsy operation that paid off handsomely.

As for those early torture scenes… I didn't enjoy them. But they didn't send me running to the commode either. The line between legal interrogation and illegal torture is not a clear black one. I would argue that, as with most issues under the Bill of Rights, the judgment involves a balancing test. Call me callous, but in this instance, I thought the depicted interrogation/torture was commensurate with the stakes.

Due in no small part because others, probably more left leaning than yours truly, disagreed with that assessment and said so loudly in the media, Bigelow came up short on Oscar night. All the same, if you want to invest time and money in a triple feature that gives a good composite picture of our War on Terror, I believe you could do a lot worse than "Syriana," "The Hurt Locker" and, yes, "Zero Dark Thirty."

Jim Castagnera's 19th book is "Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom," (CRC Press, March 15, 2013) His open-enrollment course on "American Counter Terrorism Law" is available at

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