The problem with the slow release of these high-profile award films is that by the time they’ve traveled from film fests to critics’ screenings to limited release and finally to local theaters, we already know what to expect. I don’t mean in regards to “spoilers”, the bane of film fanatics and perhaps human existence as a whole, because critics are mostly pretty careful about that. Even in a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, reviewers are careful to dance avoid excessive detail despite the facts of the story having been printed in every newspaper in the country a few years ago. If you don’t already know the story of Seal Team 6 and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, I don’t know why you’re in the theater in the first place.
What I don’t like is how I already know the conversation that surrounds the film before I see a single frame. I knew when I walked in to Les Misérables I would walk out discussing how the film would be shot and how the live singing sounded. I knew when I walked into Django Unchained I’d be discussing the use of the n-word in contemporary cinema. And I knew when I walked into Zero Dark Thirty, I’d have to decide whether or not the movie was “pro-torture” or not.
A half hour into the film, I thought the answer inarguable. The protagonists of the film had submitted a captured terror suspect to brutal torture by a variety of methods. It’s a tough watch made worse by the simple veracity of it, the knowledge that interrogations of this sort really happened, and with our blind-eye blessing. But the subject finally gives up useful information, and it’s a clue in a chain reaction of events that lead to the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout. Torture, the movie indicates, helped keep us safe.
Or does it? The longer the movie went, the less sure I became that Zero Dark Thirty seemed willing to give us easy answers of any kind. It shows the horror of torture, then juxtaposes it with the merciless bloodshed of radicals wielding AK-47s. We see kindness pay off in ways that cruelty didn’t, then the mortal stakes of people who trust too freely.
Even the climactic raid isn’t cut-and-dried heroism, but an unsettling look at what a military strike of a home with women and children inside really looks like. The soldiers are portrayed as daring and capable, but not conquerors drenched in blood victorious. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a war movie that ever felt so truthful.
Still, it’s easy for me to understand why some have found the movie so repugnant. When you’re connected to these events, something that’s narrative peppered with truth looks an awful lot like truth peppered with lies.
I suppose it might be possible to watch the movie and not realize that no person like the film’s subject, Maya, really exists. She is an amalgam of many people, perhaps even no more than a metaphor; a stand-in for America’s ruthless, unquestioning drive to enact revenge on its enemy.
But I don’t know if a viewer’s ignorance about such matters would make the slightest difference. The film’s point is tough to miss, although the people who make loud arguments that torture didn’t ever lead us to Osama bin Laden do in fact manage to miss it by a wide margin.
Which is why Kathryn Bigelow had to write a piece explaining her intentions when making the movie, the sort of strategy usually only necessary when a movie has fumbled in its ability to express those intentions. The fact the strategy is used here speaks more to people's hard-headedness than it does the movie's quality.
Zero Dark Thirty isn’t here to laud the heroes of America’s great victory, it’s here to make us retrace our steps and examine the footprints. The plot of the movie operates as a guided tour and not an endorsement. It exists only so that we remember that all this stuff happened. And we shouldn’t forget it too quickly.