A movie that deals with the hunt for Osama bin Laden has a great big elephant sitting in the narrative room. That elephant is torture.
We all know it was there in the real world, so what do you do with it in the movie world? In “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal trot it out for us at the very beginning.
We are introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) at a rendition site for detainees, with Dan about to interview Ammar (Reda Kateb).
Ammar is strung up by his wrists. Dan tells him he wants information, and that he is not there to be his friend. He is there to break him.
The movie presents the various things that happen to Ammar – none of which are pretty. In fact, they present the most harrowing part of the movie.
This gives me, as a Christian, pause.
The movie tells us that the ends justify the means. That it does not matter how it happens, but only that “justice” is done.
The movie begins with a voiceover that tells us that it is Sept. 11, 2001. We hear the call between a 911 operator and a person trapped in one of the World Trade Center buildings. The call ends with us knowing that the person calling has died.
This sets up the rest of the story about finding bin Laden. The route to finding him takes us through the torture of people, such as Ammar, who have information about bin Laden.
But the problem the movie creates is that it is not about justice for those that died. It is about revenge. When the ends justify the means, the actions taken are not about what is right, but only about achieving the desired goal.
What gives this movie much acclaim is its focus on the character of Maya, who wants to find bin Laden and acts in heroic fashion to do so. When you look past the scenes of torture, the movie plays more like a detective story.
We watch as Maya takes all the pieces of information she gleans and puts them together like puzzle. When she is finished, she becomes convinced of where bin Laden is and that decisive action is needed.
Another thing we notice is the role of politics in action of this kind. Those that are empowered to decide or influence the decision must be convinced of the outcome.
One has to remember that the hunt began immediately after the planes hit the Twin Towers in September 2001, and that bin Laden is not killed until 2011.
What the viewer admires is the determination of Maya to find this terrible human being and make him pay for what he has done.
The justification provided for all the bad things done in the name of justice is that the world is a bad place and must be dealt with in this manner. If we do not respond to the world in this way, we will end up without what we want.
The problem of what we want is that we get tempted by our desire for what is right and we end up doing wrong to get it. This may be what the writer and director are telling us.
When she enters this dark world, Maya still has some feelings of goodness and concern, but these quickly fade away.
When she stares into the abyss of the journey she is on, the reflection that comes back is one motivated by revenge. She becomes the very thing she hunts for the sake of an ending to the pain and grief of a nation.
Maya’s transformation reminds us that means are just as important as ends.
It reminds us that failure to consider both can have lasting, destructive consequences on both individuals and societies. This begs the question of whether justice can be done through unjust means.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images and for language.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Cast: Jessica Chastain: Maya; Jason Clarke: Dan; Kyle Chandler: Joseph Bradley; Reda Kateb: Ammar; Jennifer Ehle: Jessica; Harold Perrineau: Jack.
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.