On a brilliant after-snow Sunday, my friend Chuck and I hit the streets to grab a burger and a late afternoon movie. Since I have seen virtually nothing, while he, being fully wired to popular culture, has seen ‘em all, I yielded the movie choice to him and he selected Zero Dark Thirty. I am not a war movie buff, but The Hurt Locker was terrific and the buzz about Zero Dark Thirty is uniformly high, so I looked forward to seeing something of quality outside my usual range.
One of humankinds’ most bewitching attributes is our ability to simultaneously love and loathe something. From Zero Dark Thirty’s opening scenes I hated the interrogations but I loved watching Jessica Chastain; I disliked the grainy quality but I loved how it well it conjured my Middle East experience of Kuwait. I found the story hard to follow, until I was completely in its thrall and hung on every word.
I particularly disliked the film’s neutral point of view, presenting the United States decision and tactics to eliminate Bin-Laden without moral context. Regular readers of The Awkward Pose will recall that I wrote a very-much minority opinion of the US expedition into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin-Laden (Nation of Laws, May 15, 2011). My opinion has not changed; countering terrorism with terrorism is wrong. Though we all learn in kindergarten that two wrongs do not make a right, we forget it when filled with anger and rage and revenge; and no one fills Americans with more anger and rage than Bin-Laden.
Yet, I came to appreciate the film’s neutral point of view as one of its most positive aspects. Director Bigelow has to make us believe that the film is unbiased, so that when we see Obama, our sitting President, declaiming excessive torture in a television clip shortly after the movie audience has witnessed its effectiveness in routing out bad guys, we are conflicted between the world as it is and the world we want to believe in.
From there, my love/hate relationship with Zero Dark Thirty only grew thornier. The more I fell for Jessica Chastain, the more I wanted her back story, yet we are given no clues why this beautiful, capable, woman spends nearly a decade single-mindedly chasing Bin-Laden. We want a back story, because we want her to have a higher purpose, but Ms. Bigelow always champions action over motivation. Perhaps it doesn’t matter why Jessica Chastain is such an unlikely spy; the only thing that matters is that she is very determined and had the odds not fallen in her favor, the movie could have been called Black Hawk Down 2.
Ultimately what won me over to Zero Dark Thirty is an obtuse sort of patriotism. Not the militarist patriotism that we stuck it to Al-Qaeda, but the more subtle, meaningful patriotism that we live in a country where this movie can be made and presented. That citizens can spend a snowy afternoon in a theater and watch their current President’s judgment implicitly chastised without fear of reprisal on any front. That is a hallmark of our democracy.
The United States cannot hold itself above others in the actions we undertake in the name of defense and security, though they are probably not much different than others countries do or would do if they had our resources. But there are few, if any, countries on earth that accommodate the open range of discussion and debate that we enjoy. By the end of the movie I had no choice but to appreciate Zero Dark Thirty. Not because I liked the outcome or thought it was the best picture of the year, but because I live in a country where Zero Dark Thirty can be made and watched and debated.