The War on Terror is an ugly story all around. It shows the ugliest side of Islam, the smug, arrogant underbelly that insists only it speaks for God and that it is entitled to the Holy Land and a global caliphate. It shows the ugliest side of the United States, willing to take pruning sheers to the Bill of Rights for a false sense of security, willing to embrace torture to achieve its aims, willing to push international law and treaties to the breaking point in pursuit of its agendas. While we could argue that all wars end on an ugly note--there is nothing noble or glorious in dropping atomic bombs on women and children--there seems to be something both ugly and empty in a midnight raid to shoot a single old man to death. And yet few of us, I think, would argue that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a "bad thing." I certainly don't, and find deep (and dark) satisfaction in the thought of him trapped and cornered like a rat on that May night in 2011, 54 years old but looking like a thousand, put down like a mad dog. It's ugly, but deeply satisfying.
Zero Dark Thirty subsequently is not the "feel good movie of the year." But how could it be? Instead it is a very difficult film, difficult even to define. Like Argo it's another true story of the CIA that shows the Agency in a positive light--a rarity in Hollywood--but unlike Ben Affleck's film Kathryn Bigelow's doesn't end with rescued would-be hostages coming home, just the corpse of an old man. Like Homeland its protagonist is a brilliant and driven female analyst, but unlike that TV program Zero Dark Thirty is remarkably subdued. It stubbornly resists dramatic license. Its a "thriller" where we all know the ending, a historical account of an event the paint isn't even dry on yet, a morality play that doesn't take one side or the other but instead just lays out the facts for the audience to argue about later. As I said, a difficult film.
There isn't even much of a plot. Main character Maya believes bin Laden can be found by tracking down his courier, and pursues this belief with ferocious tenacity. In the end she is proved right. That's it. Along the way she loses friends to terrorist attacks, is nearly gunned down in the street, pisses off her bosses, and is driven to the very edge of complete mental and physical exhaustion. But when bin Laden is finally gunned down, does she do a victory dance? Let out a cheer? No. She sits alone in an empty airplane and silently weeps. And as downbeat as that sounds, there is still, something very nearly uplifting about it.
Yes, the movie shows Americans doing Very Bad Things. Much has been made about this is the press. We see people being tortured (or subjected to "enhanced interrogation," if you prefer). We see an American soldier gun down a woman or two. But what is remarkable about this is that director Bigelow shows these things without commenting on them; she isn't pushing a "torture is bad" agenda or a "torture is good" one either. She simply shows the events leading up to bi Laden's death with a kind of detached intensity that is, frankly, gripping to watch.
I appreciated her detachment, and was relieved to not have any particular agenda shoved down my throat. Because in the end we can debate the merits of torture, we can debate whether it was right to penetrate an allied nation's airspace in secret, we can debate all sorts of things. But the War or Terror is an ugly thing, and to fight it we have had to get our collective hands dirty. Attention should be paid to that, and that is what Bigelow has done. She has crafted a two and a half hour long meditation on necessary evil.