Spoiler Alert: Aspects of this post may reveal details or plot points you may not want to know if you have not seen the movie and intend to do so.
Zero Dark Thirty has been much maligned as a film that glorifies torture and its integral -- if not exclusive -- role in the ultimate killing of Osama bin Laden. Many have asserted that film director Kathryn Bigelow's recent snub by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences came as a result of what everyone from Senator Dianne Feinstein to John Q. Public have claimed is the movie's endorsement of, justification and advocacy for torture. Yet Zero Dark Thirty is no more simple to sum up or pillory than the road to Abbottabbad and the killing of Osama bin Laden was smooth. Neither the two-hour movie nor the decade-long search for UBL (as he is referred to in the movie) that led us into two wars are "about" torture and torture alone. This widespread inability to see anything in the film but the subject of torture blinds us to the greater complexities it brings to the big screen and, as a result, to the question it raises in the big picture of American life after catching our breath from the chase the film depicts.
If Zero Dark Thirty is about any one thing, it is about a girl, which is how then CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) and no less than President Obama himself (a voice on the end of a phone the audience never hears) dubs her.
The girl, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), makes finding and killing bin Laden the central focus of her life, if not her life itself. The girl starts as a witness to an interrogation conducted with the use of torture at which she is stunned by its horrific sights, smells, and sounds. Over time the same girl becomes immune to it all; hardened, hell bent, stubborn, vengeful, fired up, and fed up.
When the girl locates her target, she wants to drop a bomb on his compound, but instead gets a group of guys "with [their] dip and [their] velcro," the ones we instantly came to know as Seal Team Six, charged with storming the castle. When Seal Team Six kills the target, the girl is left with a corpse in a body bag no doubt far smaller up close than as large as he loomed in her consciousness. Once the work of identifying the body is done, she sits entirely alone in a cavernous military transport plane. The girl then has a question to answer: "Where do you want to go?"
If Zero Dark Thirty is about any one thing, it is about the girl, and the girl is us. She is our pain and our anger, she is our outrage, our numbness, our indifference; she is our desire for vengeance and she is our collective conscience, our feelings of vindication and the emptiness that remains when vindication fails to fill the cavernous loss wrought by the destruction we sought to avenge. The girl is our struggle to get a life when our lives have been so dominated by one thing, one battle, one goal that we no longer know who we are or what else mattered before.
Whether it's the way we face a "new" war against terrorists who do not play by the rules of engagement, the economy, healthcare, gun control, the comportment of Congress and the overall efficiency of government, marriage equality, public discourse, equal pay, education, innovation, immigration, foreign policy, or any number of the myriad issues before us as citizens and as a nation, we have a great deal of growing up to do in this era when we are called to define ourselves -- not in an era when a gruesome attack on our nation's soil, orchestrated by one man, took thousands of irreplaceable lives and defined us.
The girl in Zero Dark Thirty is the woman we've yet to become until we answer the question: Where do you want to go?
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