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Set all the controversies aside and Zero Dark Thirty is a great movie that tells a great American story.

The Head Shed

Bigelow focuses on the CIA
Bigelow focuses on the CIA

Putting the Osama bin Laden mission in a larger historical context, it’s interesting to think of Zero Dark Thirty as something of a sequel or companion piece to Argo. After all, Navy SEAL Team Six was born as a response to President Carter’s failed attempt to rescue – by helicopter – the hostages in Iran. And that Iranian hostage situation merely provided the early flames of a fire that has to this day not been fully extinguished.

Neither Argo nor Zero Dark Thirty should be taken as documentary-level reenactments. Indeed, Ben Affleck is the first to admit to embellishing his movie and the Hollywood ending spoiled much of the goodwill engendered by the bulk of the movie’s more even-keel storytelling.

Zero Dark Thirty has been engulfed in controversy because of its portrayal of American intelligence’s use of torture to gain key pieces of information. Some politicians, including Sen. John McCain, and now even the CIA itself, deny waterboarding led to any substantial information regarding the bin Laden pursuit. It’s hard to say what might be fictional here for pure dramatic purposes. Naturally, the military and intelligence agencies have a need to keep secrets, which is another hot spot of controversy for this movie. The production certainly got the right blessings from the right upper-ups to proceed quickly with some degree of governmental cooperation.

Aside from the scenes of torture, which account for a substantial part of the movie’s early scenes, other possible breaches of reality tend to be more subtle, or at least less jarring to the sensibilities than Argo, although placing the SEAL’s initial debriefing on the mission to kill bin Laden at Area 51 doesn’t sit well.

No Easy Day

Last fall former Navy SEAL Mark Owen (a pen name) published No Easy Day, his account of the Osama bin Laden raid, amid its own flurry of controversy and political grumblings. Having read it, it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about, unless you take umbrage with his rather direct pronouncements that he and other team members weren’t exactly fans of President Obama.

Owen’s account spends the bulk of the time recounting his life as a Navy SEAL and builds up to the “UBL” raid as the climactic cap to his SEAL career.

In No Easy Day, there’s a CIA agent named Jen who spent five years tracking down bin Laden. It was her mission in life and it was her steadfast, unwavering dedication to the cause that led to a team of 24 men staging a roughly 35-minute raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, 2011.

Area 51? It wasn’t in Owen’s book.

Zero Dark Thirty takes a decidedly CIA-centric view of the same mission. Once again, the raid serves as the climax while the preceding two hours provide a grand overview of Jen – now named Maya – and her painstaking efforts to find the United States’ Enemy Number One.

Flowing White Robes

There’s no denying the movie’s a well-made drama that effectively captures the tensions of tracking down the mastermind behind the loss of thousands of American lives. There are all the twists and turned one would reasonably expect from a John le Carré thriller.

The movie starts with a black screen while 911 calls and other phone messages fill the air. It’s Sept. 11, 2001, and the horror of that day’s attacks is revisited without the use of a single image.  That’s an artistic choice and it is well done. The mind does enough to take those who remember that day back to the sheer insanity of what transpired.

From there, Zero Dark Thirty marks the passage of time via terrorist attacks: a bus bombing in London, a hotel bombing in Islamabad, a suicide bomber on an American army base in Afghanistan. A decade of global devastation is portrayed while the mission to find the catalyst sputters along.

At the heart of it all is Jessica Chastain’s solid performance as Maya. Yes, she deserves her Oscar nomination. And, yes, director Kathryn Bigelow was robbed of a well-deserved nomination for her work. Chalk that up to a ridiculous set of rules that allowed nine movies to be nominated for Best Picture while restricting the director’s field to five.

100% American Woman

What’s striking about No Easy Day and Zero Dark Thirty is how identical the final raid is portrayed; the differences are cosmetic and, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, they’re no doubt decisions driven in the name of providing a specific cinematic experience. Even so, there’s no Ride of the Valkyries, no Patton march.

Back on May 1, 2011, I blogged that it sounded like the raid on bin Laden would make for a great movie. Early reports indicated some degree of American bravura and played up how the last person bin Laden saw was a soldier from the United States military. The reality is much less bravura and much more anti-climax. Osama bin Laden’s demise comes quickly, perhaps too quickly for some.

And therein rest a couple points of departure between the Owen account and the movie. Owen takes great pains to point out how young bin Laden looked in comparison to the man they were expecting. He actually used Just for Men on his beard, according to Owen. In the movie, the brief views of the body offer glimpses of a grayed beard similar to those seen in oft-repeated clips of bin Laden in his media room.

In Maya, Bigelow has found an iconic American woman. It’s fitting that, ultimately, it was a woman who led to bin Laden’s extermination. The Taliban and al Qaeda are misogynist organizations that demean women – and vast swathes of culture, for that matter. Good on Maya for bringing the bastard down.

However, Bigelow’s portrayal of Maya goes for a little more gusto that necessary. According to Owen’s account of reality, Jen/Maya stayed on the periphery while bin Laden’s body was viewed back in Bagram. She never wanted to see the body; Owen took pains to make that point as well. And, ultimately, bin Laden’s extermination led to an overwhelming wave of emotion pent up within Jen/Maya for far too long.

That reality plays out better in Owen’s account. It’s touched on in Zero Dark Thirty in those final frames, with Maya being treated to a solo flight home that seems a bit dubious and too Hollywood.

Ah, well. Those are minor points. Perhaps the “true” reality lies somewhere in between.

In Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow has provided a morale-boosting shot in the arm. Much like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which gives hope to Americans that great things can be accomplished despite the politicians accomplishing them, Zero Dark Thirty gives hope that all the “good idea fairies,” to use a concept in Owen’s account, can be kept at bay in order to allow the military to do what it needs to do.

Osama bin Laden is gone but the need for vigilance has not abated.