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Three years ago, a mid-level action director (Point Break, K-19: The Widowmaker) made a movie about an American bomb squad in Iraq. It was a great action movie, intense and nerve-wracking, and it stated a truth that most war movies stop short of admitting: War is exhilarating. It gives you a sense of purpose and a rush no drug can match. The Hurt Locker went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director. A woman covering a traditionally male subject, a woman beating her much more successful ex-husband James Cameron for the Oscar - the narrative was irresistible.
Last year, Kathryn Bigelow made a movie that is even better than The Hurt Locker. Having demonstrated her mastery of the craft of suspense - the ticking bomb, the colored wires, the men running in slow-motion from the impending blast - she turns her back on the old tricks. In Zero Dark Thirty, a rigorous procedural about the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, there are no cues to tell us how to think, not even a note of foreboding on the soundtrack. There are sudden, jarring explosions, but we don't get to gawk at the bloody wreckage or cheer that the good guys have survived.
And yet the movie is electrifying. We follow the CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she pursues her quarry, sifting through false leads, making deductions out of misinformation (e.g. They say Abu Ahmed is not important or they don't mention him at all, ergo he must be important), pushing and pushing until her superiors see things her way. You may wonder why you came to the cinema to watch someone reading files and looking at computer screens, but that is one of the points the movie makes: the heavy intelligence work is not done by glamorous Bond types, but by people sitting at desks, piecing together details, thinking till their brain hurts.
Bigelow doesn't just tell us about Maya's weariness and frustration; she makes us feel them. Maya infers that the key to finding Bin Laden is his courier Abu Ahmed and she follows the trail for eight years. It’s tedium with a sense of urgency, as periodic terror attacks remind us. This is a movie in which the most mundane situation could erupt into chaos.
The raid on Bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, much of it unfolding in eerie night vision green, is a masterpiece of efficiency. Bigelow has made a critique of action movies with their dumbed-down morality, cheap emotional manipulation and macho posturing. This is an action movie of the mind.
Other films have attempted to come to terms with September 11, 2001, but Zero Dark Thirty calls for a moral accounting that includes the viewers themselves. We cannot talk about Bigelow's film without talking about torture.
In too many action movies, torture is entertainment - a ploy to elicit our sympathy, a set-up for the hero's rousing comeback. Here it is real and ugly, and how you react to it says something about you as a human being. Five minutes into Zero Dark Thirty, we watch as CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke), conducts an "enhanced interrogation" of Al Qaeda operative Ammar (Reda Kateb). The beating and waterboarding is presented matter-of-factly. Maya flinches, but she doesn't try to stop the torture - her demeanor is that of an employee doing her job (It is interesting that Ammar calls Dan a tool of "the corporation"). A few minutes later, there is another interrogation - Ammar is beaten, humiliated, then shoved into a box. He appeals to Maya for help; she tells him he can save himself by telling the truth.
Later, Dan warns Maya that the political climate is changing. "You don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes." It's the callousness of the employee who knows how the company really works. Maya and her colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, who looks and sounds like Meryl Streep) watch a TV program in which President Obama declares that America doesn't torture, and this is "part of the effort to regain America's moral stature in the world." They seem neither pleased nor displeased to hear this - it's just the new policy.
That is how Zero Dark Thirty has managed to offend both the American Right and Left. Politicians hotly deny that information gained from torture led to the capture of Bin Laden. "We did not learn [the courier's] real name or alias as a result of water-boarding or any 'enhanced interrogation technique' used on a detainee in US custody," said Senator John McCain, a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committee and himself a former prisoner of war. "None of the three detainees who were water-boarded provided Abu Ahmed's real name, his whereabouts, or an accurate description of his role in Al Qaeda."
Liberals denounce the movie for advocating torture, or at least not condemning torture in the harshest possible terms.
Does Zero Dark Thirty advocate torture? It portrays torture as repugnant, but it also admits that torture was effective. It presents the audience with a moral dilemma: Is the use of torture justified if it produces information that saves lives? We like to think of ourselves as people of such high principles that we would never condone torture, but we have the luxury of thinking so because we have never been tested. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal do not tell us how to think. They place an unprecedented amount of trust in the viewer: You're intelligent people, work it out.
If you pay attention, the filmmakers' answer is clear. The raid is executed to near-perfection, the target is terminated, the mission is accomplished. (Unless you've been living under a rock, that is not a spoiler.) Yet there is no sense of triumph besides the soldiers' relief at having performed their jobs well. There is no celebration. Ten years lost, thousands of people dead, billions of dollars spent, America's moral stature squandered, all for a corpse in a body bag.
Last week, the Academy announced the nominees for the 2012 Oscars. Zero Dark Thirty received nominations for best picture, screenplay, actress, editing and sound editing. Director Kathryn Bigelow was not nominated.