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‘Zero Dark Thirty’: Quality isn’t always comfortable

If you haven't yet seen "Zero Dark Thirty," you may be interested in my review, which I recorded for Spokane Public Radio. In short, I try to explain why I admire the film but have trouble saying that I actually enjoyed watching it. The review follows:

While recording Movies 101, the weekly film-review show that I do with Mary Pat Treuthart and Nathan Weinbender, I had a thought about the Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow’s version of how the U.S., led by elements of the CIA and accomplished by the now-legendary Seal Team Six, hunted down, located and killed Osama bin Laden, founder and leader of al-Qaeda.

The same movie, by the way, that has been nominated for five Academy Awards despite drawing barbs from all quarters of the political spectrum.

Bigelow, of course, is the same filmmaker who, courtesy of 2010’s “The Hurt Locker,” became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar. And Mark Boal, who adapted the real-life events into “Zero Dark Thirty”’s screenplay, won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Hurt Locker.” So this isn’t the first time in the cinematic line of fire for either.

The difference between the two films is that “The Hurt Locker” is a fictional story that was “inspired” by Boal’s 2004 experiences as an embedded journalist. “Zero Dark Thirty” is an attempt to capture, with facts adjusted to add drama, an actual series of real-life incidents.

The culmination of those incidents came on May 2, 2011, when a special mission called Operation Neptune Spear succeeded in closing another chapter involving the events of 9/11: killing the symbol of that terrorist attack. Jessica Chastain plays a character named Maya, whom Boal uses as a composite of the various intelligence operatives who worked the case. Through Maya and her colleagues, “Zero Dark Thirty” puts us inside the action, witnessing the hunt and the various methods used by the hunters, including torture – or, as the euphemism goes, “enhanced interrogation.”

And that is where the barbs come in. From the right come charges that the Obama administration gave Boal and Bigelow access to classified information, allegedly designed to make the president look good. The left can’t let go of the idea that “Zero Dark Thirty,” by not taking a clear stance either way, literally endorses the use of torture. Depending on your political views, you’re likely to believe one or the other. Or maybe even both.

Then I had my thought, which was a crystallization of the feeling I’d experienced all through Bigelow’s movie. Though I appreciate much about the film – I’m especially impressed with the action sequences, something Bigelow has been doing well since her breakthrough 1987 vampire flick “Near Dark” – I can’t say that I actually enjoyed watching it. “Zero Dark Thirty” is no easy view.

And this is mostly because it immerses us in a fact-based situation and forces us to draw our own conclusions. Boal’s script emphasizes the years of hard work and numerous dangerous situations that comprised what turned out to be a supremely daunting task. But did the torture play an integral part? Was the probe into a sovereign country justified? Did the climactic killings achieve justice? Or was the whole campaign simply an act of revenge forever tied to the unforgettable nightmare vision of New York’s Twin Towers being transformed into one huge pile of rubble?

Those are questions that “Zero Dark Thirty” poses. The answers? Truth is, you’ll just have to come up with them on your own.