One of my first blog posts was about the death of Osama Bin Laden.  In Relief or Rejoice? Reflections on the Death of Osama Bin Laden, in which I concluded

As Christians, it is appropriate to feel a strong sense of relief but not rejoice in the events of last night.

Aside from rampant invocation of Bin Laden’s death as “trump card,” for democratic security credentials during the election season, Bin Laden’s death has largely been out of the public discourse…until   Zero Dark Thirty.

Kathryn Bigelow’s movie was certainly the most controversial of the Best Picture nominees.  On all sides, many have lined up to criticize Bigelow’s cinematic account of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden.

Most of the critiques follow along these lines – either she is guilty of making a pro-torture movie that gives the impression that torture directly led to the discovery of Bin Laden’s courier and location. Or, it is critiqued for soft-peddling the extent and violence of United States CIA torture (euphemistically known as enhanced interrogation).  In the immediate aftermath of the movie, John McCain and others threatened a Senate investigation to flush out her sources.

Ms. Bigelow identifies herself as a lifelong pacifist, and yet her last two movies examine war and violence. The complexity that won Hurt Locker best picture appears to be part of what is most controversial about Zero Dark Thirty. What was she doing?  In her LA Times op-ed defending her movie, she explains

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence  hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and   speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious  detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously,  isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as  free of moral consequences.

And so it was in the aftermath of all of this controversy that I finally saw the movie this weekend.  And, I must say that I saw a very different movie than I expected.  Ms. Bigelow’s movie is complicated. It is not a gratuitously violent or gory movie – its use of violence is realistic. The violence and fear of it is of a kind faced by many around the world regularly.  The outcome is an intense and psychological movie and in that I think Ms. Bigelow succeed in what she herself claimed was her aim.

Does Zero Dark Thirty give the impression torture works?

This is a principle point being argued.  It is obvious why those trying desperately to change the culture of American intelligence are particularly touchy about any hint that torture works in gathering intelligence. However, careful attention to the movie, where did the intelligence breaks come from? There are ambiguities in the movie – she visits a number of CIA black sites, watches what appears to be thousands of hours of torture interrogation video, all in her determined quest – she believes that the courier is the key to locating Bin Laden.  But for most of the movie, Jessica Chastain’s character is running in circles. A mole that is supposed to have information instead leads to an ambush where most of her friends are killed. A buried file that no one noticed for 7 years is the “big break.” It gives a name….to a phone number…to a wire tap….to tracking a cell phone (all without the “detainee program”).

Does Zero Dark Thirty down play torture? No, it doesn’t. The torture scenes are not, in my opinion, soft-peddling but skillfully done. It is persistently there – you know the reality but the magnitude is subtly conveyed. As I said before, this is not a violent movie but a psychological one. Instead of covering my eyes (as I did in some episodes of 24 or Daniel Craig’s torture in Casino Royale), Zero Dark Thirty made me feel icky. A sickening feeling that complicates the rest of what comes (and it almost doesn’t matter by what means they eventually find Bin Laden…you are stuck with that reality – torture was carried out in your name in this process). In a similar vein, the movie reminds us that fake-vaccination programs were also a part of the hunt for Bin Laden – a reality that continues to have devastating effects on international health efforts and has cost NGO workers their lives.

Does Zero Dark Thirty make clear to us that torture does not work? No, it doesn’t. Does it claim that torture led to the location of Bin Laden? No, it doesn’t.  And herein, I think is why – what Bigelow’s goal was – and where, in my opinion, she brilliantly succeeds. – She complicates the narrative.

It’s complicated. Whether or not the torture gained useful information is not the point – the point is – you cannot separate out the search for Bin Laden from the REALITY of US torture. That “ethical intelligence gathering” is what works doesn’t eliminate or absolve us of the reality that years of unethical intelligence gathering was done in CIA Black Sites across the world. Bigelow makes us face that reality and in doing so….takes away a big part of that relief felt on May 2, 2011 – and appropriately so.  This is not a victory movie. Reality is far too complicated – and it is difficult to come face to face with that complexity. In general, the American narrative wants the capture and triumph over Bin Laden to be uncomplicated. We won.  But Bigelow did not make that movie.

As an ethicist, Bigelow succeeds in complicating a reality that most of us do not want to tackle. As I sat there in the movie theater, there was no sense of relief. There was no sense of victory. There was an anti-climactic moment as the audience watched Jessica Chastain’s character on a plane…aimless, seemingly unsure of who she is or what she is now that her 1 purpose – to get Bin Laden – is done. You do not even get a sense of accomplishment and certainly not joy.  But in a sense, isn’t that the reality we, as a nation, must face? We need to look in the mirror and ask some difficult questions about who we are as a country. This involves questions about terrorism, geo-politics, but also concrete questions about the consequences of more than a decade of perpetual war, a war in which with “terror” as a goal there could never be a clear end and in which horrifying acts were justified and tolerated. (Not only torture, but “cover stories” of fake polio vaccination programs).

There is much I could write about this film. But for now, I wonder if part of the controversy is in fact Ms. Bigelow’s accomplishment – she’s complicated the death of Osama Bin Laden.  And in doing so, some of that relief many of us felt in 2011 slips away.  That alone, perhaps, is reason enough to watch.