Zero Dark Thirty

John Perritt
"A near-perfect movie," said Time magazine's Richard Corliss in reference to Kathryne Bigelow's film, The Hurt Locker,"  a tense military drama following an elite Army bomb squad unit which turned out to be one of the most critically acclaimed films that year, taking home Best Picture and Best Director at the 2010 Academy Awards. How would Bigelow follow-up after this directorial success?  Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of actual events surrounding the tracking, and killing, of Osama bin Laden. The film gets its name from military lingo associated with the time of night bin Laden's house was raided - 12:30 a.m.  

Even though screenwriter Mark Boal "met anonymous sources at gas stations, held off-the-record lunches with enlisted military and used two retired Special Ops veterans as counsel and sounding boards"(1), it has still been labeled as an inaccurate fabrication of actual events by CIA operatives.

However, It doesn't mean that ZDT is entirely fictional. Boal states, "You have to make a creative choice about what makes it into a 2 1/2 hour film that's covering a span of 10 years."(2)  All of that to say, some facts make the cut, some are left out, some were altered, but directors need to make decisions about the final cut.

Not only has accuracy been an issue with ZDT, but the disturbing torture scenes have been a point of critique. Even Senator John McCain slammed the film for implying that torture techniques were imperative for the killing of Osama bin Laden. McCain, who was captured in the Vietnam War, is understandably sensitive to this issue. Although the film has torture being an aspect of the story, I didn't sense that the filmmakers had an agenda that was pro-torture.

But critique has not been the sole reason ZDT has been the topic of conversation as of late.  The film is a front-runner when it comes to awards. It is nominated for five Academy Awards and four Golden Globe Awards - Best Picture, Director, Actress and Original screenplay being included in these nominations.

All of this to say, this movie is currently a big deal.

I'll go ahead and state the obvious. Zero Dark Thirty is a rough film. It's portrayal of the behind-the-scenes work of our military (you know, the stuff you often think is real but don't want to think about) carries a realism that will be unsettling for some. It is a military film, so it calls for a certain level of violence - even language - to be accurate. The context is also surrounding one of the greatest manhunts the world has ever known; therefore, Christians must go into this movie expecting gritty, realistic, violence.

The scenes of torture, which begin at the opening, will, no doubt, be difficult for many to watch. Although unsettling, for a film to be faithful to the horrors of torture, these scenes must be created with the goal of disturbing the audience. Anything less would be a failure to capture what is taking place to fellow image-bearers. Even though the torture scenes are disturbing, the focus of these scenes is actually on the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain), and not the glorification of torture.  

Chastain has received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of the conflicted/driven CIA operative. Her character will be the person which most audiences identify. She struggles with the desire of wanting to know the truth, only to learn that truth at a severe cost, namely torture.  She's conflicted about apprehending an evil man who causes great evil, yet evil is being employed to stop him. Her on-screen portrayal captures this dilemma and raises interesting, if not unsettling, questions for us as Christians. It's also interesting to watch her character become hardened through the process. Although Chastain does an excellent job of portraying her character, I don't believe she will take home the Oscar; her performance can feel a bit forced at times.

ZDT also has some excellent supporting actors. Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, & Mark Strong, among others, add to the intensity and realism of the story. It really is a film full of superb acting. 

Another concern many seem to raise regarding ZDT is in the form of a question: what's the agenda for Zero Dark Thirty?  Bigelow didn't seem to have much of one for The Hurt Locker, other than telling a good story. For this viewer, the same seems to be the case with ZDT. She has said that she really just wants to tell a part of history that needs to be told. That being said, everyone has an agenda.

I'm not sure if Andy Naselli intended to write his post entitled "Wayne Grudem on the Jason Bourne Films" the exact week that Zero Dark Thirty was being released, but there may be some parallels here. As mentioned by Grudem, "the CIA constantly faces hostility and criticism from much of the American media and Hollywood." Whether or not the creators behind ZDT had an anti-CIA agenda, I can see this film feeding that sentiment. Don't get me wrong, the primary objective of telling a good story is its focus, but those who dislike the CIA will have more ammunition (no pun intended) for their dislike for the agency. The film doesn't pull punches about the horrors of what, most likely, takes place to defend the homeland.

Regardless of how movie-goers want to interpret the film, an anti-CIA attitude shouldn't be a surprise. Grudem is right to point out that the CIA is an organization for which we should be thankful; this is not to say that every decision they make is in line with Scripture. However, it's an organization that strives to defend America from enemies. Sometimes defending ourselves requires justified bloodshed, but this is something Hollywood tends to speak out against (unless it's selling tickets at the box office). Hollywood, like Christianity, wants peace. However, Hollywood doesn't think bloodshed is necessary and wants peace without bloodshed.  Christians, however, realize that bloodshed is necessary because of sin. Ultimately, our peace came through the shedding of blood.

Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent film. It's a film that won't leave you alone. It will resonate long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up. You will reflect on justice, the price of our freedom, the effects of our sin, the issue of torture, and the struggles of applying the light of the Word in dark corners of this world. 

Rev. John Perritt is a graduate of RTS and is Youth Pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, MS. He blogs regularly on film & theology at reel-thinking. He and his wife Ashleigh have three children.

2. Ibid.