Zero Dark Thirty by Jim Reed
This is a strange film. I don’t quite know what to make of it. On the one hand, it’s a taut, marvelously crafted thriller; well paced with a relentless finish. It is art and entertainment, information and narrative. The film is not simply a documentary featuring all of the highlights and lowlights of the decade long search for Osama bin Laden, it is the story of a woman’s relentless pursuit of national justice. We identify ourselves with Maya (Jessica Chastain), feeling her frustration, helplessness and determination.
On the other hand, because it is a film about events that have shaped the current national conscience, it is hard to gain traction for any sort of perspective. We are also encouraged to remember our national anger. The film opens with what felt like nearly a minute of blank screen and voices (radio, television, phone calls, etc) from September 11th, 2001. Films always lead us a certain direction on the perspective in which we are to see things, and because 9/11 has shaped the world we currently live in, we cannot easily step outside of our worldview and take a fresh look at it. On top of that, it is jarring for me to see these events as entertainment when nearly half of my life has been lived in the shadow of 9/11. It is a jarring because I cannot escape my own perspective of the last dozen or so years. As I see it, this is a film intended to remind us of and hold us in our cultural worldview. We have been wronged, and there must be justice. But what is justice intended to do, and be?
It seems to me that in the United States we understand justice as the administration of the law, intended to keep things on an even keel. Or we see it as retributive action against wrongdoing or a wrongdoer. Justice does not incite gladness in us, not under most circumstances. Justice does not incite joy in us. Justice, for us, is merely a counter-action to villainy, rather than a state of living life. Justice and uprightness are no longer true synonyms for us, so the state of “living justice” is relegated to a state of living out retaliation and bitterness in the name of justice.
On May 2nd, 2011, I felt nothing when President Obama announced bin Laden’s death. I wasn’t relieved, angry, overjoyed, or even happy. One thing I do remember thinking—now what? So he’s dead, what do we do now? This question has remained with me since. The filmmakers try hard to conceal their bias surrounding the events themselves, and do an admirable job, but the whole tension of the film for me rests in its open ending. All of the nearly three-hour look at decade-long relentless pursuit is capped by a prevailing lack of closure. What do we do now? Was it worth it? Do we feel any freer now than we did before? Does bringing Osama bin Laden to justice change anything about the way we live our lives, or is there no going back?
The question posed to Maya in the end is the same one I have wrestled with, and with which I think we must all wrestle (Individually and Corporately)— Where do we want to go from here?
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