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The Surprising Gift of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When it comes to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” there are two kinds of people-- those who have seen it and those who should.

Emerging from any theater afterward, there will be two kinds of people-- those who grasp that enhanced interrogations save lives, and those who do not.


As a longtime member of the first group, I was gratified to the point of surprise that a product out of Hollywood depicted our harshest interrogations without an accompanying ham-fisted condemnation.

But the even greater praise for “Zero Dark Thirty” is that nor does it grab you by the lapels and make you approve of waterboarding.

It is a rare film that tells a story matter-of-factly with room for an audience to feel the way it wishes. For this, I offer great thanks to Ms. Bigelow, who is no conservative.

But she has the honesty to show what we have done to some detainees in extended scenes that induced a cringe or two even in me.

But it never shook my clarity that these were strategies designed to save lives. And they worked.

For a big name like Ms. Bigelow to assemble a sublime cast and spend a whopping amount of money to create an iconic and gripping document like this-- it is to be celebrated.

But what of those who stream out of “ZDT” mortified by the reminder of interrogations they have condemned for years?

Hey, free country.

I did not need this film to prod me to an appreciation for waterboarding and other techniques as a tool for getting useful answers from high-value detainees. I did not need the interrogators wrapped in faultless, glowing heroism.


In fact, the superb Australian actor Jason Clarke paints his character Dan as a weary but determined soul who longs to return to America from his black-site assignment to “do something normal.”

The commitment of Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is a tribute to every analyst hunched over computer screens or under headphones looking for dots to connect to save American lives.

And by the time the last 40 minutes roll over you, “ZDT” has put you on the helicopters with Seal Team Six, their muffled engines whisking them to an appointment with history in Abottabad, Pakistan.

You know exactly how the story turns out. But the journey is crafted with such skill that it renews and refreshes gratitude for the success of the mission and those who made it possible.

One presumes that even the scolding naysayers who recoil at the interrogation scenes might find some appreciation for the ultimate payoff-- the removal of Osama bin Laden from the battlefield.

But I’m not hopeful. And I don’t care. The voices who have slammed Ms. Bigelow, and the Oscar voters who snubbed her for a Best Director nomination-- are clearly too caught up in their rage that “Zero Dark Thirty” does not heap shame onto the portion of our war effort that involved aggressive and stark methods of questioning.


There is comic irony from the critics who can sit through a thousand movies employing some degree of dramatic license, but have no tolerance for it here. Responding to prattling detractors who say the film attributes the mission’s success directly to enhanced interrogations, Ms. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal replied in a statement:

"The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes.”

Make no mistake, “Zero Dark Thirty” will send war-haters into the streets itching to text Michael Moore about what a horrible country we are.

But as our nation appears sadly poised to retreat from battlefields still teeming with combatants, viewers appreciative of our precious successes will enjoy a chronicle that honors those who have made them possible.

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