The Oscar should go to Zero Dark Thirty. This film details the long relentless manhunt of a CIA beauty (Jessica Chastain) on the trail of Osama Bin Laden. The tension steadily builds and never lets up. From black site interrogations scattered around the globe and across the years to the black ops assault on a Pakistani compound in the dead of a nail-biting, history-making night, the gravity of this subject matter provides its own weight. There is little need for the kind of suspense gimmicks frequently employed in director Ben Affleck's prize-competing thriller Argo.
Director Kathryn Bigelow previously strutted her unflinching focus on harsh military realities in The Hurt Locker. However, Zero Dark Thirty should earn her the medal of valor. She dares to present complex, troubling issues in unresolved and even-handed ways. Viewers are allowed to see that cruel interrogations can contribute life-saving intelligence, but also that we cannot be 100% sure that detainees know what we think they know. Thus, they may not always have their finger on the button to end the ordeal by "doing the right thing." So, cruel interrogations offer strategic advantages but also serious moral concerns.
(Think big brother's growth spurt has ended? Out of over 100,000 detainees, the Bush administration waterboarded three and only with written chain-of-command authorization. Way more US military personnel underwent waterboarding in survival training. However, the Obama administration has routinely drone executed terror suspects without any trial on the judgement call of a single government official. Big brother is only getting bigger. Note to CIA readers: here in the Mexican jungle, I dream about being waterboarded from May to July, being stripped naked in front of female agents is also a personal fantasy, wearing a dog collar is not my chosen fetish but worth trying, plus listening to Barney and Friends blaring for days through a loudspeaker is what locals call a fiesta. I could likely even handle Celine Dion. Still, if you're gonna drone whack my house, be sure you get me not my dog Jack. You can shock my genitals, if you ask nicely, but leave Jack alone!)
The interrogation subjects in this film are similarly complex. They have more sympathy with jihadists and less propensity for truthfulness than is wise, but they have familial and cultural ties that do merit some empathy for them. Their interrogators aren't the all-knowing or all-bumbling types usually cast in CIA roles. They're mediocre government bureaucrats who sometimes work hard and occasionally have noble intent. Too much truth for a movie? Maybe.
There's even a fair-minded conversation between a Bush-era agent and an Obama-era colleague. The latter makes the point that his rival was too prone to aggressive action in past assumptions about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The former makes the counter-point that waiting for absolute surety may hold far greater danger in the present situation. Junkies of mindless modern media may find it disturbing that there is no partisan CNN or Fox News (or mood music) to tell us which of these earnest guys is Luke Skywalker and which is Darth Vader.
Folks who cannot handle a world with shades of gray should avoid this movie. Argo offers a simplistic, entertaining suspense alternative with black-bearded, towel-headed foreign meanies on one side and a non-violent, fun-loving coalition of the willing (hippies, diplomats, journalists, filmmakers, and Jimmy Carter staffers) on the other. Will the Film Academy prefer the deep dark geo-political reflections of Kathryn Bigelow or the deepest geo-political reflections that director Ben Affleck is capable of? God only knows.
In a time when internet technology automatically connects us with content that matches our preset preferences, when we are tempted to believe that we have thousands of friends and followers who like our perspective, when we are encouraged to instantly block-out those making comments we disagree with or find confusing, when public discourse is highly polarized and considering an opposing view is often frowned upon, we need more such movies that make us think without spoon feeding us what to think. Otherwise, it may be Zero Dark Thirty (the darkest time of night) for free speech and a once-enlightened free people.