The Academy gets to nominate up to ten movies for Best Picture under its new rules, but there are still only five Best Director nominees. For that reason, the Best Picture nominees are divided by many Oscar-watchers into two tiers, with only those whose directors were nominated assumed to have a real chance for the big prize. Not since 1989's Driving Miss Daisy has the director of the Academy's Best Picture not even been nominated in his own category. Kathryn Bieglow's Zero Dark Thirty was considered one of the Best Picture front runners until the Oscar nominations were announced on January 10. The film received a Best Picture nomination but Bigelow herself, whose previous effort, 2009's The Hurt Locker, earned her the first Best Director award won by a woman, did not get nominated in her own right. It's been rumored that Bigelow was being punished personally, just as Paul Thomas Anderson was presumably punished for offending Scientology, for appearing to endorse torture in her new film about the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden. The way I saw it, Zero Dark Thirty portrays torture as an arguably necessary but certainly not sufficient ingredient in bagging the world's most wanted terrorist. The torture shown in the movie was not enough to nail Osama's location in Pakistan, and it should be borne in mind that Mark Boal's screenplay was first written while bin Laden was still at large. Were he still at large now, many viewers might well assume from a different version of Zero Dark Thirty that torture accomplishes nothing. Now that Boal and Bigelow have caught up with events, many people can't help inferring that writer and director consider torture to be necessary, effective and right. Bigelow's tone makes the film a rorschach blot that draws out each viewer's preconceptions. The director herself aims for a naturalistically neutral tone, neither handwringing nor triumphant. We may still be too close to events for some people to tolerate or even understand such a presentation. Many of us still want to know what side Bigelow's on, and many of those can't accept that she may not choose to take a side. A case might be made that she had to take a side, and that if torture isn't explicitly condemned the film has endorsed it. Whether that case would convince everyone is unlikely, but enough people are angered by what they see -- or fail to see -- that Zero Dark Thirty may not be appraised in purely cinematic terms for some time.
It's possible that the film's political critics focus so much on what Boal and Bigelow say or don't say about torture that they miss what the creators seem to be saying about their overall subject, the hunt for bin Laden. The broader view, however, is less neutral than deeply ambivalent. This is not a cheerleading movie unless the viewer assumes that Maya, Jessica Chastain's composite character at the film's center, is meant as an unconditional hero. Chastain gives a heroic performance, climaxing both 2012 as a year of aggressive female characters in cinema and her own meteoric rise since first earning notice in Terence Malick's Tree of Life a year earlier. But the heroism seems exaggerated in a deliberate way, as if writer, director and actress all want us to think twice about the way Maya curses and blusters and vows to "kill" bin Laden or "smoke" other terrorists, or is called a "killer" by colleagues. Unlike her cinematic peers of 2012, Maya is not an action heroine. She never fires a shot in the picture; when terrorists fire on her car in Pakistan she can do nothing than crouch below her bulletproof windshield and reverse the vehicle back into her compound. She may be the mastermind, but it takes the muscle of Navy SEALS, who may as well be her puppets, to actually kill her target, though she gets to declare victory by identifying Osama's corpse. Interestingly, we never get a full shot of the man; all we see is a beard and a nose, as if we as well as the whole world has to take Maya's word that the SEALS have hit what they call the "jackpot." I don't mean that Bigelow is somehow implying that the dead man isn't bin Laden, but she is reinforcing the way this has become Maya's personal quest and vendetta, at a potential expense invoked by the sort of character we're usually programmed to dislike, a male superior who questions Maya's priorities. This character asks a fair question: with new threats to the "homeland" from apparent freelance terrorists, how important was it by 2010 -- how much was it worth in resources -- to get the apparently isolated bin Laden? It would be easy to say that Maya must be right because she's the protagonist, but we know what a film where Maya is unambiguously right would look and sound like, and Zero Dark Thirty doesn't look or sound like that. This questioning attitude toward the hunt for Osama persists as a theme even after it could no longer be underscored by his survival despite all efforts. But some observers clearly believe that the film doesn't do enough questioning about the overall War on Terror, and their attitude is best expressed by one of the movie's own interrogators: an incomplete truth will be treated as a lie. That could be said about any film allegedly based on fact, but some facts will always matter more, and their omission offend more, than others, depending on the observer. Eventually these things will matter less and the film will be judged on something closer to its own terms.
Zero Dark Thirty is an epic procedural told in a restrained pictorial style that might strike some aesthetic critics as cold if not for Chastain's fervor. The procedural format takes us away from the film's early focus on torture as Maya and her colleagues must weigh clues and make guesses that bring them closer to the compound in Abbotabad. Even early on trickery seems to matter more than torture; the prisoner whose torture is portrayed most extensively finally opens up after the interrogators tell him (untruthfully) that he had already begun talking the day before but can't remember because he'd suffered from sleep deprivation. "Tradecraft" rather than torture is the film's real subject, the latter shown as part of the former. The dry procedural material is supplemented by some pure suspense scenes -- the kind when you can tell something bad is going to happen but you're not sure what. We also get short snippets of the Khobar Towers and London terror attacks to remind us that the bad guys remain an active threat. Some will feel that such scenes stack the deck in favor of Maya and her way of doing things, especially after it becomes a matter of personal revenge for her, but the questions Boal and Bigelow mean to raise about whether Maya's mission really solves the problem should persist for anyone who watches the film thoughtfully. Zero Dark Thirty respects its audiences' intelligence -- whether it respects history remains subject to fierce debate -- and the response to it suggests that many viewers aren't used to such a film. It'd be a shame if such a response cost Bigelow a chance at another Oscar, but while this is a compelling picture it may not endure as memorably as some of her previous films, apart from Chastain's performance, because of its relative lack of the action that had been her strong suit. It's neither Bigelow's best film nor the best film I've seen from 2012, but it's a strong picture just the same, and history rather than contemporary perceptions or prejudices will determine its ultimate worth.