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The Importance of Zero Dark Thirty

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It is not surprising that the two best films about terrorism are as controversial as they are provocative. Though released nearly half a century apart, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty are astonishingly similar in story and technique, their use of composite characters and compression of time, breathtaking verisimilitude and, most importantly, the moral questions they raise about fighting wars on terrorism.

These films also depict monomaniacal protagonists placed in morally compromised situations. And both are unsparing in their respective depictions of French paratroops and American intelligence officers torturing captured terrorists for information on the whereabouts of the terrorist chieftains they seek.

It took France nearly a decade to come to terms with what its security forces in Algeria had done. Indeed, The Battle of Algiers was initially too incendiary for the French public and was not shown in that country until 1971 -- five years after its worldwide release.

Less than 18 months after the climactic event it chronicles, Zero Dark Thirty is scheduled for nationwide release later this month. Although early box office returns show America is ready for a patriotic story of perseverance and determination, our political leaders perhaps are not. The film started to come under political attack before the script was even finished. In the months since, the furor over the film has hardly abated.

Zero Dark Thirty has become a stalking horse for the partisan politics of both parties. Accusations that senior government officials provided the filmmakers with classified material, that Zero Dark Thirty glorifies torture, and -- shockingly -- that the filmmakers dramatize and condense a 10-year struggle into one movie, have been repeatedly voiced: holding Hollywood to a higher standard of probity and veracity than official Washington ever is.

While we may wish to collectively expiate ourselves of the sin of torture, neither release nor redemption will come from harrumphing about a movie. Torture is abhorrent and unconscionable, but it is impossible to tell the story of the hunt for bin Laden without showing how prominently torture figured during the war on terror's opening phase. While euphemistically-labeled "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EIT) may not have played a role in pinpointing bin Laden's lair, they were most certainly a part of the concerted effort to find him in the years immediately following the September 11th attacks. Is it conceivable that Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the attack's architect, was water-boarded 183 times and never once asked where he thought bin Laden was hiding?

Bigelow masterfully uses the hunt for bin Laden as a metaphor for the entire war on terror. This explains why the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty are not strictly factual but rather combine elements of the abuse perpetrated on Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq along with that meted out to al Qaeda detainees at the CIA's secret "black prison" sites in order to tell the story of this epic, complex, decade-long struggle.

Perhaps the most memorable line in the film is spoken by the fictional CIA interrogator, Dan. "You don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes," he tells his protégé Maya: thus capturing how the political winds dramatically shifted in the middle of the last decade, when interrogation methods once deemed justifiable no longer became acceptable.

This is the true cynosure of the film -- around which everything else revolves. It is an important evocation of the lengths to which societies under threat will go in the name of security, and the slippery slope that any country descends when desperate times countenance extreme measures.

From that moment, Maya becomes the archetypal American hero who refuses to give up even when the rules change and she is ordered to re-focus her attention onto other priorities. Key to this transformation is the full array of intelligence techniques -- signals intercepts, Internet usage, and visual surveillance from spy satellites -- that Maya brings to bear in her pursuit of bin Laden. In this context, Dan has another important line when, seated around the CIA director's conference table, he admits the limits of the information derived both from his interrogations and subsequent "detainee reporting," thereby vitiating his own work in the early portion of the movie.

Zero Dark Thirty is destined to become a classic much the same as The Battle of Algiers. Both blended fact and fiction to create dramatic thrillers based on compelling characters, with clear story arcs -- even while communicating equally profound, and timeless, messages. That these films respectively focus attention on controversial and unsavory aspects of history, raising difficult and troubling questions, is precisely their strength. In Zero Dark Thirty's case, however, it is not for Hollywood, but for the American people -- and especially their elected leaders -- to provide the answers.

Bruce Hoffman is director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Hoffman is the author of Inside Terrorism.