I am going to make this very brief, since 1) there has been a great deal of discussion on this topic recently, and 2) I am knee deep in essays to grade this weekend.
Last night I saw Zero Dark Thirty. I was a fan of both Strange Days and The Hurt Locker, so I went expecting to like the film, but I also went in with my controversy radar set to high sensitivity, to the extent that I found myself distracted by a nagging need to self-monitor. Am I being propagandized to? I kept asking myself. How about now?
Most of the time, the answer was, “no.” The movie is not a defense of torture or a hagiography of the CIA, nor is it a condemnation of those things. It seems to be, as the director has publicly (though belatedly) stated, an attempt to present as truthful an account of the CIA’s pursuit of bin Laden as is possible, given the limited information available and the constraints of the dramatic form.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think it is successful even in that modest ambition, and the reason for that comes down to a very small choice made late in the film.
I will entertain the idea of art as the “mirror in the roadway”(sometimes reflecting the sky, sometimes reflecting the mud, etc.) as justification for the film’s existence. But, if your goal is merely to tell the truth, you need to find a less obvious truth than “we killed bin Laden.”
The sad thing is the filmmakers had an easy opportunity to do so, but they went out of their way not to. I am referring to the decision to not show bin Laden’s face. One of the important ways in which true stories differ from myths and fictions is that they are about real people. In addition to being the most famous terrorist in the world and a pretty powerful symbol of evil, bin Laden was also just some dude who had to eat and sleep and shit like the rest of us. I don’t think you have to be of any particular political persuasion for that to be a weird (for lack of a better term) thing to think about. There are two truths to this story: we spent ten years and a whole lot of money to kill bin Laden the Powerful Symbol of Terror, and we spent ten years and a whole lot of money to kill bin Laden the just some dude.
By choosing never to show bin Laden’s face, Katherine Bigelow is denying the later half of that little stoner truism, and thereby relegating the whole effort to the realm of popular myth (and some would say propaganda.) And that’s a shame, because she's ignoring the half of the story we’re a lot less comfortable with.