what the final 60 seconds of ‘zero dark thirty’ tells us about war, torture

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Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

what the final 60 seconds of ‘zero dark thirty’ tells us about war, torture

zero dark thirty

i’d give a spoiler alert warning, but zero dark thirty is a darker ‘titanic’. brace yourself, folks: they shoot & kill osama bin laden. with that said, i’m going to talk specifically about (and show a clip of) how the movie ends, which is not simply the killing of bin laden. so, proceed with as much caution as you deem necessary.

the controversy surrounding zero dark thirty began swirling almost immediately after word got out that kathryn bigelow, award-winning director of the hurt locker, would be making the film. as soon as screenings began, the criticism reached a fever pitch, with both conservatives and liberals decrying the film. even when, on twitter and facebook, i stated that i’d be seeing it, a few people chastised me for doing so.

i can report now, after seeing it, that it’s a movie that couldn’t have escaped the controversy. (i can also report that it’s a movie that i recommend everyone see.) the controvery seems to be a lesson in confirmation bias. ultimately, most people will enter with an opinion and leave with fuel that affirms that opinion. for example, conservatives who support “advanced interrogation techniques” will say that the movie proves they work. liberals who oppose torture will say the movie is inaccurate because it presumes that torture works and directly led to the successful conclusion to the hunt for osama bin laden.

no doubt, i have particularly strong opinions on the issues raised in the film. let me be very clear: i’m consistently pro-life. what that means is that i’m anti-war, anti-torture, anti-violence, anti-killing-for-any-reason, etc. i was opposed to the killing of osama bin laden and i’m opposed to the wars that our country have been engaging in for the last decade. to be even more clear: i believe the life of a “terrorist” is just as valuable as any american.

but if i’ve, after seeing the movie, fallen victim to confirmation bias, it’s in a different way than others of my ilk have used it to denounce the film (which i certainly do not).

i feel the filmmakers succeeded, as was their stated intention, in making a largely journalistic film. we watched as unflinching depictions of torture, shootings, bombings and suicide missions played out on the screen. these scenes aren’t set within the context of monologues that describe how we should feel. they simply occur. and we watch.

and for me, watching was difficult. as an american, watching detainees being tortured was chilling and shameful. seeing mothers and fathers being shot down as collateral damage in the raid on bin laden’s home was gruesome and saddening. the lines between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” have never been so blurred.

some have accused the filmmakers of setting up the CIA and the americans as the heroes, while all the muslims are simply deranged, blood-hungry terrorists. i absolutely didn’t feel that way. if anything, i saw the main character, maya (played by jessica chastain), as obsessive and calloused and largely unlikable due to her actions. early in the movie, she could barely watch the torture, but ultimately, she’s willing to endure those tactics if it means she gets what she wants. she is not a character i could root for.

and yet, she’s the character that delivers what i feel like is the only time the movie editorializes on what we’ve seen. it seems, in the final minute of the film, that the filmmakers offer their voice through her character. (to be fair, i’m making grand assumptions about the filmmakers’ points-of-view.)

after seal team six successfully enters the dwelling place of osama bin laden and leaves with his dead body (which is a genuinely riveting 30 minutes of cinema), chastain’s character confirms the identity of bin laden. with the mission over, it then cuts to her boarding a c-130. this sets up what i felt like was the most powerful moment in the movie. watch it below.

when she’s asked, where do you want to go?, her only response is silent tears. the realization that there is nowhere left to go is a tragic and painful one. where do you go after torturing people? after treating other human beings like less-than-humans? after obsessively wishing death on someone? after selling your soul for a government mission?

once you’ve traded your soul in for the dignity and value of others—regardless of what they’ve done or what they know—there is nowhere to go. you’ve entered into a journey in which you can’t turn back.

entering into that kind of darkness takes something away from you. it changes you. you’ve become what you believe you’re fighting to stop. it makes you lose direction.

in my estimation, this is the only time in the film that the filmmakers really pull back the curtain and offer a point-of-view. certainly, it’s a powerful one that sheds light on the horrific realities of obsession and torture and war.

i recommend that everyone go see zero dark thirty and in its aftermath, each one of us asks ourselves, where do you want to go?

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