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February 17, 2013, Sunday

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

I don’t know if “Zero Dark Thirty” will win an Oscar, but I am sure it will take its place in US movie history as one of the most controversial movies ever made. Since it was released on Dec. 19, it has been the topic of ongoing heated discussions.

This 2012 production of an American historical drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal had five nominations for the 85th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Jessica Chastain) and Best Original Screenplay. It also earned four Golden Globe Award nominations and won Best Actress in a Drama for Chastain.

For many of us, this year’s Academy Award-nominated films have been very unsatisfactory. I believe that awards shouldn’t be given unless great films are made. Yet, I’ve seen all the most talked-about releases and have been disappointed by the majority. “Flight” was entertaining, but it had its flaws. “Django” was fun but not Tarantino’s best. “Lincoln” featured some great acting but wasn’t amazing. “Argo” was good, but inadequate as an Oscar nominee. The rest was mostly disappointing. Especially “Skyfall,” not because İstanbul is pictured unrealistically as an exotic, undeveloped city in this movie, but it also has a dreadful script and was completely unbelievable. I haven’t seen “Les Misérables” yet. However, we are generally disappointed by movies based on books, and “Les Misérables” is one of my all-time favorite novels so my expectations might be too high.

Yet, it seems that “Zero Dark Thirty” is the most controversial nominee of the year. It is promoted as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man: Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda.” Since the film is a dramatization of the US operation that found and killed Osama bin Laden, it has received broad critical acclaim and has generated enormous controversy, both for the graphic depiction of the torturing of suspects and for what is described as the accomplishment of the US in gathering information on bin Laden’s connections and location.

In many people’s eyes the movie is crude American triumphalism. For some it is pro-torture, for others it is anti-torture. For many people it’s more reactionary than creative, and for many others it is deeply uncomfortable. Probably, the subtle message “Zero Dark Thirty” wants to send is that women can handle front-line combat roles. However, for being a woman in a man’s world and for showing herself to be as tough as male characters, many viewers indicated that Maya (Jessica Chastain’s character) is sending us a message that this is about women’s rights: Women can torture, too. Now we are truly equal.

I don’t like war movies. Actually I don’t like anything related to war.  However, I found “Zero Dark Thirty” a lot more rewarding and engaging than Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s six-Oscar winner, “The Hurt Locker.” Still, I cannot say I like the whole movie. It might be even boring or plodding for many people. Also, remember it’s too long -- 160 minutes. Yet, there is a crucial scene in the film Bigelow directed brilliantly, and it is worth seeing: While on the search for bin Laden, three Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers stop talking and look at a TV. The date was Nov. 16, 2008. On the screen US President Obama was on the show “60 Minutes.” The president declared, “I have said repeatedly, that America doesn’t torture.” The three looked at the screen speechlessly and we saw Ms. Bigelow’s close-up of Maya -- her face is truly a blank. Mr. Obama continued, “This is part of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”

Well, what did Maya’s blank face tell us? Ms. Bigelow didn’t want to give us any clues if Maya was stunned by what she heard? Was she apathetic? Was she agitated or relieved? Maya’s face revealed nothing and she was silent. Her attitude is the biggest part of the controversy we have right now because different viewers have different interpretations of her nondescript facial expression. Maya played a big part in the violent and brutal interrogations of the detainees. To me, her expression said: “I am a senseless robot now. I am carrying out a totally different order to the one I have been given. But, I’ll adjust soon and act accordingly.” Ms. Bigelow doesn’t preach with the bold close-up. She simply implies, this is the terrible world we live in; this is how governments protect our freedoms. In contrast, last week started with the news of the US Navy SEAL who claims he shot bin Laden. It seems we’ll keep learning more about the hunt for him and his death in time. Yet, it is a complicated story, and to sort out all the facts might takes decades.

For now, before criticizing “Zero Dark Thirty” we should remember that Hollywood just makes films for the sake of entertainment. So we cannot expect a historically accurate film. If it was, it would be a documentary. The problem is the little phrase: “based on true events.” Maybe it’s better to promote the film just as fiction.

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