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'Zero Dark Thirty' — Bigelow's Controversial Film Worth Seeing

Director Kathryn Bigelow overlooked for Oscar in Best Director category.

"Zero Dark Thirty," which brought in $24 million in its first two days of wide release, has been lauded worldwide and almost universally as an impressive piece of filmmaking. It's a movie that is anything but formulaic.

It is always very different for those of us who live in the Washington area. Our experience of anything political is amplified. The headquarters of the CIA and FBI, not to mention the White House, are all within driving distance. It is nearly impossible not to have heard about the controversy surrounding this film. 

Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., denounced the film, for its depiction of torture. “We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden," the senators said in a statement.  

The film follows Maya, a CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain, who tenaciously and single-mindedly tracks Bin Laden for years, leading to the raid on his compound and subsequent death at the hands of an elite Navy SEAL team. The title refers to 12:30 a.m., the exact time they landed. The movie doesn't hold any punches. The opening moments are filled with voices crying for help in the twin towers on 9/11.

It isn't easy to make a movie an engrossing journey when we all know the ending, but the team of Bigelow — Oscar winner for "The Hurt Locker" — and screenwriter Mark Boal have done so, creating a visceral, tension-filled feature that leads us to question what we as individuals and as a nation should find acceptable behavior in the war on terror. 

For a film with many scenes at desert outposts, in compounds and in darkened warehouses, the director's strict set decoration and the meticulousness of her shots makes every scene one where the entire screen can be examined. There are seemingly endless details included, no matter how wide the shot.

The biggest shock of the Oscar nominations, given the high praise the movie has received by audiences and critics alike, is Bigelow's conspicuous absence from the Best Director category. Cinema Siren is of the female variety and somewhat alarmist of things that stink of sexism. She is none too pleased at the members of the Academy, wondering if they feel one Oscar nomination and win for a female director each decade is all that can be countenanced. 

A Los Angeles Times study last year found Academy members are 94 percent Caucasian, 77 percent male, and have a median age of 62. One would imagine they would attempt to stave off cries of bigotry and narrow focus by rewarding legitimately great works by artists of all races and genders. But no. 

In its uniformly stellar cast, there are two stand-outs. One has gotten much attention, and one will hopefully see more attention in the future. Chastain, as the central character Maya, shows every reason why Hollywood has made her their "It" girl. She has already played a wide variety of characters, from the brittle grief-stricken mother in "Tree of Life," to the tarnished and damaged girl looking for a new life in "Lawless." 

Now in "Zero Dark Thirty" we see her build her arc from squeamish-yet-determined-newbie to unshakable and emotionally fractured badass whose obsession drives her. I should put that in caps: BADASS. Whether she has become our homeland monster, our version of zealot or not, is for the viewer to decide.  

The other actor deserving attention, which the Academy has withheld, is Jason Clarke. Cinema Siren repeatedly sings his praises. His supporting role as bleary-eyed, seemingly unquestioning triggerman Dan, the CIA operative who heads interrogations, shows proof once again he should be climbing the A-list ladder faster. He carries a sweetness and retained humanity that strikes the viewer, and breaks our hearts even as we flinch. He is the first to start the audience asking themselves what they would do in his position.  

Bigelow was in Washington last week, screening the film at the Newseum to an undisclosed guest list of Washington insiders and government employees. It was meant to be a low-key affair, especially after CIA Acting Director Mike Morell had just criticized the film's inaccurate portrayal of torture being key to finding Bin Laden. He said that only "some intelligence came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques." MPAA chief Chris Dodd defended the film, by saying "It's a movie, not a documentary!"

Bigelow said while accepting Best Director honors at the New York Film Critics Circle ceremony: "I thankfully want to say that I'm standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices."

It should not be a question of whether Oscar voters, or moviegoers for that matter, agree with her willingness to denounce or promote torture. The fact, whether as a woman or not, this director is able to confront such moral ambiguities unflinchingly and with such a clear aesthetic vision while finding a way to keep audiences in thrall, should be rewarded at the highest level. 

It is an unintended irony that the movie is centered on a tenacious woman rising to the top in the man's world of the CIA, and Bigelow, who brings the story to us all, is being ignored and excluded in the man's world that is the Academy. Is it too much to ask that members of the Academy see the error of their ways?

If you, lovers of great film, support "Zero Dark Thirty" by going to see the film and spending your movie-going dollars, Bigelow will no doubt find some consolation. We will all have hope Chastain and Boal win Oscars for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay, prompting Oscar voters to mend their sexist attitude.

We will also have to hope some future female directors currently in middle school will be able to thank her one day. Cinema Siren thanks her now.

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