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Review of Zero Dark Thirty

I'm not sure I'm ready to say much about this movie, even though I saw it last Friday. I'm really troubled by it honestly, and I think while it's unquestionably an effective piece of movie-making, I think it basically operates at the same level as propaganda. Fiendishly effective propoganda. Undeniably artistic propaganda. But, at the end of the day, this is a work devoted to painting a particularly convenient view of the world.

Zero Dark Thirty traces the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden and the climatic raid that lead to his death at the hands of American special forces troops. Our guide through the gloomy, tense, and confusing world of spy craft and car bombs is Maya, a young woman recruited directly from high school, convinced that Bin Laden uses a single man as a courier to the outside world.  Each terrorist captured offers clues and names eventually revealing the identity of the courier and the ultimate night-time raid on his Pakistan hiding place.

A few thoughts about this movie. When I mentioned at my lunch table I'd seen the movie, one of my co-workers mentioned she had too and asked me what I thought of it. The first thing that popped into my head was, 'it's a movie about how things really are. What's in the movie is the truth of how the world is.' So I said something along those lines. Another co-worker piped in with the observation that a lot of the movie might not be so factual. A report from the Congressional Investigation office determined that no evidence obtained through coercive techniques (water-boarding, humiliation, etc.) actually helped in the search for Osama Bin Laden. Even on a more basic level, the protagonist of the movie, Maya, didn't exist. Her character was aggregated from a number of actual people for the purposes of narrative efficiency.

I knew all of this when I said what I said. So what was I trying to say? Perhaps this was a clumsy attempt to describe how the movie feels as opposed to what it actually is. From start to finish, Zero Dark Thirty describes the world as a dark, threatening, and morally ambiguous place populated by very serious people trained to do very serious things to this country's enemies. What lends the movie power is that it concentrates on the events of the decade long hunt for the leader of Al Qaida, rather than any of the messy motivations behind the 911 attacks or behavior of our government. This government tortured people. This government grabbed people right off the streets in foreign countries and stuck them into black sites from which, as the characters readily admit, they will never emerge. This country sent a team of trained killers into another country to kill one man. The movie doesn't really take a moral stand on any of this. Maya is initially revolted by a scene of water-boarding but then increasingly hard-nosed. By the end of the movie, she's almost inhumanly certain of her own actions. "The politics are shifting," one ex-torturer says part way through the movie, but our protagonist remains monomaniacally driven to find Bin Laden. A member of Seal questions Maya's plan to capture the terrorist late in the movie, and she retorts smoothly, "I wanted to drop a bomb on him."

It's this unapologetic look at America's "War on Terror," that could really rub people the wrong way. I know from first hand encounters plenty of people do not want to watch this movie. Some question if the movie tacitly supports torture by suggesting (indirectly) that it lead to the capture of Bin Laden. Other pointed out that even if you do make an assumption that some of the information may have lead to other useful leads, the movie should have made more of an effort to show, beyond being immoral, tortures just not that effective. People forced to talk through torment and enhanced interrogation have a nasty tendency to produce whatever information their torturers most want to hear.

Zero Dark Thirty's director, Kathryn Bigelow, would probably say these moral questions are beside the point. She uses all of the jargon, jarring interrogations and paranoia as atmosphere for a story wallowing in ambiguity. The moral uncertainty of the movie is her point. The world of Zero Dark Thirty is a dark and dangerous place necessitating hardened professionals unconcerned with ethical controversy, or the 'politics of the situation.' In many ways, this movie is a more effective dystopia than Hunger Games, grittier cyberpunk than her own near-classic: "Future Days."

To her credit, even the final raid on Bin Laden's hiding place is not really played for cheers. Unquestionably bad people meet their well-deserved fates along side a few innocents. Both are dispatched with the same professional, clinical skill the Delta Force uses to blow open doors, jump out of stealth copters, and throw horseshoes at targets. The movie depicts the quest for Bin Laden as an obsession, one with costs and implications.

In the final scene, our virtual protagonist Maya collapses into a seat on an empty cargo plane. "Where would you like to go?" a crew member asks. "I don't know," is her reply. Our last view of Maya is of her looking up to the ceiling of the aircraft, crying, a shocking display of emotion from someone stone-faced for nearly every minute of the movie. What do these tears mean? Are they tears of relief? Delayed sorrow for all those lost in the decade long hunt? Or her own confusion over what the decade meant, to herself and her country?


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