The right and wrong about ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

The critical commentary about the Bigelow-Boal movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden, is wrong. The chief criticism is that the movie condones torture. I think its portrayal of torture is likely to repel most viewers, to force them to look away from it. How is that condonation? As director Bigelow remarked, a movie’s showing something is not necessarily endorsing it. Exposure in drama is often, in the best cases, the best argument against it. Think of “Gentleman’s Agreement” or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Portraying cultural anti-Semitism or racism did more to condemn it than condone it. The brilliance of “Dead Man Walking” was that it even-handedly dramatized both sides of the death penalty issue. It isn’t clear in this movie, or in any accepted historical evidence, that torture led to Osama bin Laden’s assassination. The issue of the morality, legality, efficacy of torture is an important and fair issue for public debate. I’m on record deploring the practice, and I would guess so are Bigelow and Boal. So I think this criticism of their movie showing the revolting picture of torture is incorrect and unfair.

On the other hand, much of the movie-business praise of the movie is off base. The chief actress, Jessica Chastain, does not capture a role as Meryl Streep does in her starring roles (a tough comparison, I admit), or, more to the point, in comparison to Claire Danes’s extraordinary performances in “Homeland,” playing a comparable character. On the other hand, the movie ought to win Best Picture for one reason only — it makes viewers think about an important subject. One doesn’t leave the theater commenting about the actresses’ hair or lips or the technical action shots. They leave arguing about the morality of torture. More people will have that discussion because of the movie than all the articles by pundits and commentators, because that is what movies do so well, when they aspire to.

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The movie isn’t a documentary, so should not be criticized for its incompleteness. Few should doubt the influence of a well-made movie — for example, Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” even if his history is bizarre. So too, “Zero Dark Thirty,” a dramatic “take” on a momentous adventure that distills fundamental problems of national security, should be judged as a movie, a dramatic display of a contentious public policy issue that the American public should see in order to consider.