I was all set not to like "Zero Dark Thirty." I judged director Kathryn Bigelow an enemy of truth and justice for depicting torture as a necessary evil to find Osama bin Laden. When I walked into the screening, I was ready to hate "Zero Dark Thirty" as revisionist conservative propaganda.
Then I saw it. "Zero Dark Thirty" is the best movie you won't have any fun watching. I got a stomachache from the tension that didn't leave until well after I got home. If "Argo" amped up the adrenaline and boosted the thrills, "Zero Dark Thirty" prevented an emotional payoff. Its genius is that the movie feels as long and grindingly stressful as the war it depicts. This is not a Will Smith movie. You will not cheer. You will not feel better when it's over.
Torture is what we'll remember this movie for. We see CIA agents hurt, hit, taunt, waterboard, and otherwise toy with "detainees," a word that becomes bureaucratically sinister as the story progresses. If "Zero Dark Thirty" glorifies torture, then "Schindler's List" glorified the Holocaust.
Torture doesn't break open the case in "Zero Dark Thirty." By the time the CIA figures out tricking al-Qaeda detainees works better than torturing them, anyone watching the movie has become an accessory after the fact. Torture done in our name implicates us all in war crimes, and part of our guilt is the painful gulf between knowing that torture is un-American and feeling that torture was too good for al-Qaeda. It's hard to hear your better angels with the voices of 9/11 victims in your ears.
The torture occurs in the part of the story when we fumbled around in the dark in our first war of intelligence. When al Qaeda attempted to assassinate Bill Clinton in Manila in 1996 and bombed our embassies in East Africa two years later, Americans were still arguing over how to spend the Cold War peace dividend. So when 3,000 people were murdered at work in 2001, we came up with really dumb ideas to fight this new enemy such as offering Muslim fundamentalist terrorists $25 million to turn in bin Laden "dead or alive." That, and hitting them really hard.
Most wars pit armies against each other over land or sea, but this one was different. This was spy-versus-spy, a global war against a disparate terrorist network. As one senior CIA official screamed at his ineffectual team in Pakistan, "Bring me people to kill!" Put simply, "Zero Dark Thirty" is the story of spies finding people for our military to kill.
Are these people heroes? Bigelow resolutely refuses to portray anyone with a movie star glow. Only Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor on TV's "Friday Night Lights") is big-time handsome, and he plays a bureaucratic speed bump. The actors playing Seal Team 6 are hulking, bearded killers who'd look more at home playing Seth Rogan's brother in a movie than a Navy Seal. Instead of playing shirtless volleyball in the sun, they play horseshoes while beset by ennui. Wanting to kill the people who killed your friends is what passes for good intentions here, and uncertainty is as frustrating as a cold that you just can't shake.
Who are we in the end? Seal Team 6 may have soberly announced they got bin Laden "for God and country," but we are not the noble victors. And if this was a war of intelligence that left us wiser, it began in violent madness that infected how we think about war. Our spies find us people to kill, except now we have drones kill them.
My wife didn't want to come with me to the screening. "Too soon," she said, and like most smart things she says, I didn't get it right away. If we've forgotten the visceral pain of 9/11, the long grind of our war against its perpetrators is only now winding down. "Zero Dark Thirty" bravely reflects back at its audience a war that we did not lose. But like this film, it sure doesn't feel like we won it, either.
Jason Stanford is a nationally syndicated columnist, author and Democratic political consultant who lives in Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jasstanford.