It seems you can't discuss Kathryn Bigelow's new film, the Best Picture contender Zero Dark Thirty, without discussing the torture scenes. I think that's fair, but not because the movie's been condemned by people like CIA Director Michael Morell and crusty old John McCain. In my mind, you can't—or you shouldn't—gloss over that unsavory aspect of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden.
What's at issue here isn't whether there was torture—we know there was; rather, it's whether torture was key in finding the al-Qaeda leader. I don't believe that the film makes the case that it was, but it's easy to understand why some viewers think otherwise.
Torture is where Zero Dark Thirty begins, as we see scruffy CIA man Dan (Jason Clarke) terrorizing a prisoner. This is where we're introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent whose Jimmy Choos are fresh to Pakistan's soil. Dan's the cunning veteran, and though Maya's seeing things that disgust her, she quickly recognizes the need to be the good cop to Dan's bad.
It's shortly after 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and Maya and her comrades are desperate to track down Osama bin Laden, by any means necessary. Zero Dark Thirty is a marathon, not a sprint, and it takes almost three hours to cover the 10 years of Maya's hunt. During that span, the spotlight on bin Laden faded, as the U.S. got itself mired in two wars. We watch as the years go by, and resources once dedicated to finding bin Laden are deployed elsewhere. Even Dan decides to return to the states, citing burnout and an understandable feeling of self-loathing.
The characters in Zero Dark Thirty may be composites (or they may be based on actual people), but the timeline is real, and Bigelow presents many of the terrorist attacks that occurred during this stretch in very real, very disturbing ways. The constant throughout all of this is Maya, whose single-minded determination to find bin Laden—despite threats to her own life and waning political interest in the matter—is what eventually leads the Navy SEALs to bin Laden's hidey hole.
Chastain, who's been a busy actor during the last two years, offers up one of the Oscar year's best performances, creating a character whose competence and effectiveness makes her almost impossible to like. But that's the thing: You don't have to like her to appreciate what she's able to do and how good she is at her job. She is a pit bull—aggressive, angry and completely determined, unafraid to stand up to authority if she believes she's right. We get to know almost nothing about her personal life, but that's probably because she doesn't have one.
The other person who's immensely good at her job is Bigelow, who hasn't wasted a second despite her film's lengthy running time. People are likely going to be talking about Zero Dark Thirty a lot in the coming months, and it's worth noting that folks seem to have a hard time separating a film based on historical events with the events themselves. At the end of the day, this is just a movie, like Argo and Lincoln, two other recent films based on real-life events. It's not a historical document, and no matter how close it does or doesn't stick to reality, Zero Dark Thirty is an incredibly well-crafted film.
Though we can't seem to get away from the torture question, in my mind, Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal—who've been accused of sourcing their film from classified material—offer up a thoroughly nuanced take on what's a thoroughly complicated subject, professing torture to be evil but letting the viewer decide whether it's a necessary one.
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