Zero Dark Thirty: Smart and Gripping

I watched Zero Dark Thirty with trepidation. Ordering Osama bin Laden’s death and playing golf are probably the only actions that Barack Obama has taken these last four years that haven’t made this country less free and less prosperous. I was worried the Oscar-winning team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal would use the story of the hunt for bin Laden to hagiographize this mediocre and reactionary president. I was worried that that was why the picture was getting such good reviews.


But Bigelow and Boal turn out to be bigger than that and better. The two and a half hour film does contain one scene in which a White House official says, in effect, “The president is a thoughtful, analytical man who won’t pull the trigger quickly because he doesn’t want to make the same mistake George W. Bush made with the WMD in Iraq.” That’s the sort of political reading we expect from Hollywood, and Bigelow and Boal make sure to get it in.

But the rest of the movie is a deadpan tribute to the intelligence agents and Navy Seals who slow by slow tracked this bad man down and sent him to meet a Maker very unlike the one he was expecting. Indeed, some could see the overall film as a reprimand to a president who took so much credit for what was clearly the work of men and women laboring through two administrations. Plus the movie graphically depicts how that work involved interrogation techniques that Obama ultimately prohibited — a prohibition which clearly hobbled the search.

But hey, this isn’t the New York Times, which gives good reviews to films it agrees with politically and bad reviews to films it disagrees with. This is me, who tries to treat them fairly no matter which side they’re on. And Zero Dark Thirty is gripping for its entire running time, exciting during the final mission, well-constructed and well-directed throughout. The performances are uniformly excellent with standout work from Jason Clarke and the always superb Jennifer Ehle (and yes, that is the curly-haired darling who starred in the best-ever adaptation of Pride and Prejudice).


So all in all: one of the better movies of the year. A powerful depiction of an important event.

One more political note. Some politicians are griping because the film tells the truth about the fact that important information was gained through “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These politicians are not only liars themselves but wish to be the source of lies in others. There’s clearly a lot of ficitonalization in this story, but that’s not part of it. The idea that enhanced interrogation didn’t work is more fictional than anything in the film — or in any film. That doesn’t make such techniques morally right, of course, but let’s at least have the debate honestly. Oh wait, sorry, I was talking about politicians. Forget I mentioned that honesty stuff. What was I thinking?


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