Hollywood welcomes sending a message to the world. That is why “Zero Dark Thirty” is a formidable contender for Best Picture. But, the night I went to see it, I had a man next to me perpetually munching on popcorn, even during the waterboarding scene. How do you munch your way through popcorn during something like that? You have to wonder if that may say something about our collective confusion over 9/11 and its aftermath. Anything can be turned into entertainment. “Zero Dark Thirty,” despite boorish popcorn munchers, is a different kind of entertainment. It is the kind of activist entertainment intended to spur action and thought, in the same spirit as “All The President’s Men.”
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are up to the task of presenting to the world the hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and what happened along the way to finding and killing him. Just as they captured the sense of what was going on in the U.S. invasion of Iraq with “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow and Boal again give shape to recent history with the powerful medium of cinema.
In order to make better sense of a complex issue, the film focuses on two CIA officers that represent the Central Intelligence Agency through this process. There is Dan, played by Jason Clarke, who vigorously pursues “enhanced interrogation techniques,” in other words, torture, to gain information. And then there is Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, who transitions from torture to a better way, in other words, persistent detective work. The film has its share of controversy. Complaints have come from U.S. senators and the CIA, that the film inaccurately shows torture as resulting in useful information towards finding Osama bin Laden. Perhaps the CIA felt that torture had its place.
The fact is that this film objectively shows Dan and Maya essentially failing with the torture route. If it coughed up any information, it was insignificant. It’s enough to make a red meat true believer like Dan decide it’s time to quit. “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” he advises Maya. Maybe to hedge its bet, the film implies that any specs of info that Maya gleaned off the backs of detainees may have helped to narrow down her search for the legendary mystery man, the infamous “Abu Ahmed,” the trusted courier of Osama bin Laden. But, more to the point, the film gives human error its own title card for playing the role of inadvertently suppressing vital information, information that could have been found without any torture in the first place.
If there is too much of an air of ambiguity for the first part of this film, you could hear a pin drop and not one munch of popcorn when we get down to crunch time. We reach zero hour about two thirds in once bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad is confirmed: the skeptics at the White House are satisfied, special super secret choppers are untethered at Area 51, and SEAL Team 6 is assembled, locked, and loaded. The definition of “zero dark thirty” is a military term describing a time between midnight and dawn. While it is a unspecified time, it inspires certainty and resolve. The good guys are moving at a sure pace under the cover of dark. The chopper will, at first, fail, as we all know. There will be casualties. But, on that fateful night in Pakistan, despite the Pakistani air force ready to fire in retaliation, the United States regained much lost ground and turned a page of history. It’s enough, for that moment, to keep the popcorn untouched.