Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Review of Zero Dark Thirty

Watching Zero Dark Thirty is an uncomfortable experience.  The first 45 minutes contain images of torture conducted by the American CIA.  It's one of those movies that does not distract you from reality, but rather plunges you deep into it, with all its complexity and ugliness.  Ultimately, this is the film's success, that it causes the viewer to think about reality.  

The movie broke stereotypes I had of US intelligence agents and interrogators.  I pictured them as sadistic and inhuman.  But the main interrogator in the first part of the film has a Ph.D.  He is well-educated.  And the film's hero, an agent named Maya, is not a monster.  She is a smart, determined woman with a single-minded focus on finding Osama Bin Laden.  The viewer is left to deal with the uncomfortable reality that real, intelligent, conscientious Americans torture other humans to get valuable information, and it is sometimes effective.  

The torture ends about halfway through the film, as the Bush administration ends, and is succeeded by the Obama administration, which outlaws torture.  There is a scene in the film where CIA agents are discussing tactics, and Obama appears on a TV screen in the background, stating America's new policy on torture.  From the perspective of the agents, this new policy is a handicap.  This raises the fundamental philosophical questions of the movie: Do the means justify the ends?  Is torture justified, if it means finding and killing the man responsible for 9/11?  The film does not answer this question.

It's appropriate that the final scene of the film is not a triumphant "Mission Accomplished" or a big celebration.  The final shot of the film is of the agent Maya, the young woman responsible for finding Bin Laden, alone and crying.  They are certainly not tears of joy.  They are tears of understanding that, in this world, good and evil are intermixed.  Finding Bin Laden meant the torture and death of many others.  Reality is complex, ambiguous, and an appropriate response is sorrow.

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