How come a movie as smart and as serious as “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed and scripted by a highly acclaimed team – Mark Bowl and Kathryn Bigelow – is getting so little love this awards season? The answer: the radioactive politics of the film.
The controversy surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty” made the cover of TIME magazine this week. And while that piece of media real estate is not nearly as valuable as it once was once upon a time, it is still an important launching point for conversation among the chattering classes. Washington, certainly, is listening, obsessed even, with this controversy. It is not too often that a movie invades the polite conversation of the morning Sunday talking head shows and muscles its way onto Charlie Rose.
“Zero Dark Thirty” has, in fact, become a sort of cultural Rorschach test in the intellectual argument over the use of extraordinary rendition in the capture of dangerous terrorists as well as its use in the prevention of terrorist acts. The Fox television show “24,” after its own crude fashion a couple of years ago, raised the same controversial set of questions. That was then; this is now. “Zero Dark Thirty,” which takes the most extreme case – the mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the world’s top terrorist – has faced questions of accuracy as well as questions of philosophy, now that we as a country have had some time and distance from the emotions of September 11.
If you are on the Dick Cheney side of the political-cultural spectrum, you’ll probably think that “Zero Dark Thirty” is “fantastically compelling” — as The National Review’s Rich Lowry did. Further, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, a hawkish Democrat who headed the CIA in a previous life, loved it and, he says, “lived it.” Panetta liked the way James Gandolfini portrayed him, telling Martha Raddatz on “ABC’s This Week,” “it’s a great movie … I think they did a great job in indicating how this came about.” In fine: if you believe in extraordinary rendition, or enhanced interrogation – flowery ways of expressing a brutal event – then this is the film for you.
On the other side of the spectrum, however, the reviews are more critical, honing in on the motives behind “Zero Dark Thirty.” Natasha Lennard in Salon notes, “(O)f course, the big question driving much criticism of the movie is whether it justifies torture. The argument is rooted in the premise that ‘ZDT’ presents information gleaned from ‘enhanced interrogation’ as crucial in leading the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.” CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen – an unpaid advisor to the film — writes, “’Zero Dark Thirty’ is a great piece of filmmaking and does a valuable public service by raising difficult questions most Hollywood movies shy away from, but as of this writing, it seems that one of its central themes — that torture was instrumental to tracking down bin Laden — is not supported by the facts.” Maybe they should have paid him?
Who is right? And does it even matter in the scope of the mission of a dramatic work of art? Biopics, particularly during awards season, face an unbelievable amount of scrutiny. Clearly “ZD30” is not a totalizing narrative, so let’s get that off the table right away. Kathryn Bigelow maintains to the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film.’’ So if this is not a “true story” — an accurate depiction of a single event — then what is it? And why have the critics fixed on this question of accuracy that has already, quite frankly, been answered by the filmmaker? Again, this leads back to the political radioactivity of the film that I mentioned at the outset.
Whatever you might think of them, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do not play small ball. It is not inconceivable, in fact, that ZD30 might have been too controversial – and thus radioactive – for any major award. How interesting that at this year’s Oscar’s ZD30 – a film fraught with controversy – is set to go mano-a-mano against “Argo,” a universally loved film about a “soft” solution to a political problem in the Middle East, in the Best Picture category. Awards season has turned out to be a battle between two similar films about a troubled region offering different solutions to the problem – one aggressive, the other softer. And it looks as what the juries this awards season want in that category of Best Picture is the Hollywood happy ending.