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Movie Review: “Zero Dark Thirty”

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Beneath all the controversy, all the political posturing and all the hand-wringing, is an amazing work of cinematic art, an important true story treated with every bit of the weight and gravitas that it deserves.

Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is the best film of 2012, and also the best ever made about the war on terrorism. It’s cinema as an extension of long-form journalism, an intriguing and exciting story even though we know exactly how it’s going to end. Written by Mark Boal, the journalist by trade who also collaborated with Bigelow on the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” comes through in just about every way.

The film spans the ten years between the 9/11 attacks and the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, following various CIA and military bureaucrats as they attempted to piece together leads about where the al-Qaeda mastermind was. A CIA analyst known as “Maya” (Jessica Chastain) is the protagonist, often clashing with colleagues over the mission.

Now, about 90 percent of the film’s controversy has been about its treatment of the torture issue, and most ridiculously of all, most of that has seemingly been driven by pundits and political figures who either have not seen the film or completely misunderstood it.

Much of the film’s first third is taken up by a series of scenes in which a detainee, at a CIA “black site,” is waterboarded, kept tied to the ceiling and stuffed in a box, and subscribed to others of what were known at the time as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

In the past few months I’ve heard that the “Zero Dark Thirty” endorses torture, that it asks us to root for it, and that it claims definitively that it worked in catching Bin Laden. None of those assertions are the slightest bit true of this film.

The torture scenes are horrifying. We want them to stop, and we’re certainly not cheering along with the torturer. And even further, the movie doesn’t make the case that “torture led to the death of Bin Laden.” It’s much murkier and more ambiguous than that. A character is tortured, a bunch of other things happen, then a bunch more, and then there’s a break that leads to Bin Laden’s capture.

And brutal and hard to watch as the torture scenes are, leaving them out of the film would have been dishonest.

“Zero Dark Thirty”‘s thesis is that a combination of things, mostly painstaking detective work by CIA agents, led to Bin Laden’s location. That’s not all, of course. But the film treats the bribe of a Lamborghini, presumably purchased with American taxpayer money, for a Kuwaiti sheik as more of a pivotal event in the war on terrorism than all the waterboarding combined.

Much of the film’s middle third is taken up by tales intra-government bureaucracy and turf battles, which is both fascinating and also super-realistic, and something that no film about the war on terrorism has captured thus far, with the exception of “In the Loop.” We’ve had a decade-plus of conspiracy theories about the government since 9/11, when the truth is more akin to what happens here: Various people had either disagreements or personal feuds.

And the final third, of course, is the raid itself, which is tense and nerve-wracking for every second even though, once again, we know exactly how it ends.

The film is mostly devoid of politics- it’s neither flag-waving jingoism nor lefty iconoclasm, and actual politicians are mostly absent. There are no cut-backs to the White House Situation Room during the raid sequence, and the only well-known political figure played by an actor is then-CIA director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini.) The Harvey Weinstein-backed NatGeo TV movie “SEAL Team Six,” which aired a few months ago, was a sort of amateur hour version of this, with an intentional pro-Obama tilt.

The cast is strong across the board, especially Chastain, who brings just the right note to the role. Jason Clarke, the cop show veteran who plays the lead interrogator, should’ve been a star a long time ago, and after this movie he will be. And a whole bunch of welcome actors (Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau) are on hand in small roles.

Just think: If there’d never been a 9/11, neither “The Hurt Locker” or “Zero Dark Thirty” would ever have been made, and Kathryn Bigelow might still be best known as one of James Cameron’s ex-wives, the one who directed “Point Break.” Sadly 9/11 and all the ensuing chaos did happen- and we have a brilliant filmmaking team that has made the two greatest films about that chaos.

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