Zero Dark Thirty

Director Bigelow’s excellent saga about the quest to kill Bin Laden tells a larger story. Can we honor the dead of 9/11 by copying the moral depravity of their killers?

Rating: Can be seen on any screen. The movie may be 2½ hours long, but it took close to 10 years to pay back a debt.

Zero Dark ThirtyZero Dark Thirty deserves all of its praise and criticisms. It is an accomplished, critical study largely seen through the eyes of Maya, played by the marvelous Jessica Chastain, a CIA operative destined to spend nearly a decade in Pakistan/Afghanistan. In the process, we watch as the world’s most powerful country repeatedly bungled its attempts to find its greatest enemy.

To begin with, Ms. Chastain dominates the screen in a role that will challenge Jennifer Lawrence in this year’s Oscar fight. She is flat-out remarkable as a dedicated American operative who is hell-bent on finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. She literally lives and breathe to attain her sole goal, and it readily appears she has no other interests in life.

As I have previously noted in other articles, no other actress today other than Ms. Lawrence rivals Ms. Chastain’s enormous capabilities. Given the fact that she has two films playing today, both Zero Dark Thirty and Mama, that dominated box office receipts the past two weeks, it is clear that her intellect, passion and beauty place her alone in Hollywood’s cinematic orbit.

However, the sad reality of Zero Dark Thirty is found in the opening half hour. Following 9/11, what we observe is the tragic reality of our country throwing away our moral compass. In the panic and anger that followed the destruction of the twin towers, the Bush administration willfully invited the use of torture into the 21st century, and in doing so you almost feel like the wretched Bin Laden succeeded in the end.

To their credit, both Ms. Chastain and one of her co-stars, Jason Clarke, don’t run from the repeated use of torture, or as it was called by Vice President Cheney and his cohorts at the time, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Captives are suspended by their arms, denied sleep, food and water, not to mention waterboarded and viciously beaten. Sadly, everybody involved, and I mean everyone, embraced the cause with a vigor that is profoundly shocking.

Ms. Chastain initially winced, but she quickly got over her concern. As for Mr. Clarke, he was an American who could freely torture when in an isolated prison building only to quickly enjoy his activity with his collection of monkeys who were kept in a cage on the facility. Next to Ms. Chastain, Mr. Clarke provides a window into our country’s dark soul.

It is worth noting here some great performances by several supporting actors. I have already referred to Mr. Clarke, and you can hunt him down as one of the Bondurant brothers in last year’s powerful Lawless. Joel Edgerton is a dedicated squadron leader, and it is worth taking a look at either Warrior (2011) or Animal Kingdom (2010) to appreciate his capabilities. Finally, Jennifer Ehle makes a strong contribution as Jessica, one of Ms. Chastain’s cohorts. Her end is as heartbreaking as it is difficult to watch.

I should also point out that my wife, Monica Foster, agreed to suspend her chronic disbelief in the movie theater and go with me to see Zero Dark Thirty. As many of you know, she is the Executive Director of the Federal Public Defender Office for the Southern District of Indiana, and our reaction to the movie was quite similar. More to the point, there were some lame accusations made against defense lawyers that were profoundly insulting.

The torture sequences were appalling for two fundamental reasons. First of all, by sanctifying torture, we lose our ability as a country to oppose it in other countries. After all, if we were justified, why aren’t they?

For you movie fans, think of Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans (1992), where Native Americans tortured captured Colonials. Can we really dismiss those acts as primitive when we engaged in similar activities in the 21st century?

Secondly, the torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty failed to adequately demonstrate that nothing was gained that led to the capture and death of Bin Laden. As Monica noted, people who are tortured will say anything to end the agony, and our failure to recognize the obvious as a country created a black mark that will now be a part of our legacy.

After President Obama was elected, he flatly stated nationally that torture will not be an accepted part of our national policy, and this appears on-screen. It was after that time when we had to continue to do the hard work, long ago defined by detectives like Sherlock Holmes, to finally find and kill Bin Laden. There is a lesson to be learned that we simply cannot forget.

9/11 was a national tragedy, and over 3000 American lives were lost. However, we cannot win our battle if we become no morally demanding than those we oppose. Simply stated, you can’t oppose the devil if you are willing to dance with him.