Without a doubt 2012ís most controversial film was Zero Dark Thirty, especially if you were a member of Congress. Torture has become one of the moral issues of our time, one that everybody has a strong opinion on, therefore it was only natural something touching on it so directly would generate a heatedly split response. Months before it was even released there was a debate over whether or not classified information had been leaked to the filmmakers, and then of course there were the huge questions over whether the film was pro-torture and the manner it portrayed torture in helping to get bin Laden. The controversy turned out to be something of a double-edged sword Ė it contributed to it becoming an unexpected box office smash, but the ruckus also likely cost it a shot at several prestigious (and well-deserved) awards, as Kathryn Bigelowís snub for Best Director can attest to. Above all, though, it got people talking, a tradeoff the filmmakers are likely content with.
Zero Dark Thirty is immaculately constructed by Oscar-winning scribe, and former journalist, Mark Boal, which was no easy task. He had to boil down a decade-long manhunt into 150 minutes, plus rewrite the whole thing when bin Laden was killed halfway through preproduction, and it all works seamlessly like a charm. Itís not hard to follow nor does it feel overstuffed, yet at the same time itís very thorough and never feels shortchanged, either. Itís a tricky balance to walk but Boal manages to get it just right.
The acting is another big reason why Zero Dark Thirty is as good as it is. Jessica Chastain gives one of 2012ís most compelling performances, in my opinion a Best Actress worthy one. The 10-year hunt ends up consuming her to the point of obsession, and Chastain nails the transformative steely resolve and determination to a T. Bigelow also enlists a long line of excellent character actors to make even the small roles worth paying attention to, one of the perks of having just won Best Picture and Director.
Which, as we all remember, happened three years ago when the Hurt Locker famously beat out Avatar, but Bigelow and company werenít content sitting back and decided to one-up themselves with the follow-up. This time itís on a larger scale, a lot more storyline threads are at play, itís more complex thematically and less of an action picture. But that isnít to say itís not exciting or dull, and being that everyone already knows the ending, was an obvious concern going in. Rest assured, the bin Laden raid is one of the most arresting sequences in recent memory. Kudos to Bigelow for shooting it in what feels like real time and keeping Hollywood bombast out of it.
As for its depiction of torture, I found it to be about as accurate as can be expected for a non-documentary. The facts are our nation did many terrible things in the wake of 9/11, and Zero Dark Thirty never shies away from the ugly. Does it make torture out to be more successful than it was in real life? Perhaps, but it also shows how unreliable the information obtained using enhanced interrogation can be and that sometimes good old-fashioned detective skills are the best bet. Truth is, the real life issue of torture is far from clear-cut and cannot be summed up in a simple paragraph. There are countess articles that delve into the accuracy and message of Zero Dark Thirty in greater detail than I am able, so read a few and make up your own mind. I would recommend starting with The Atlanticís excellent ďZero Dark Thirty Is Not Pro-TortureĒ and go from there.
Whatever your thoughts on torture are, whatever you felt Zero Dark Thirty was or wasnít advocating, there is no denying it is a striking and well-made piece of filmmaking. Ultimately, it tries to be as ambiguous and apolitical as possible to force viewers themselves to wrestle with the consequences of using torture, both the positive and negative, because persuasive arguments can be made on either side. Bigelow even fittingly chooses to end by lingering on an unanswered question as if to say the debate is far from over and now left up to us to decide the final outcome. Art is supposed to be provocative, and few did it better in 2012 than Zero Dark Thirty.