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Hollywood talks torture ... intelligently

At the height of Oscar fever, the new film based on true events and eyewitness accounts surrounding the hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” is getting a lot of buzz and attention.

Some of it is deserved. Some of it isn’t.

On the plus side, the movie is thought-provoking and intriguing, and the acting in the film is outstanding. Characters come across as genuine, with multiple levels of personality and motivation. It just feels real. The tension toward the end of the film, including the extensive portrayal of the raid on bin Laden’s compound, is gripping.

On the negative side, the first two hours of this nearly 3-hour account drag on painfully slowly and don’t even adequately explain some key details, such as how the U.S. got the cell phone number that cracked the whole case wide open. While much of the film is interesting, far too little of it is entertaining.

My other major criticism of the film is its dialogue, which I suppose was intended to sound “real” and gritty. But the way people talk day to day, the “real” way we speak, is sadly trivial and vacuous. One of the reasons we enjoy good books and good movies is their ability to transport us to a place (and edit that place) so that characters speak with eloquence and pith and humor, a level of conversation far above the “want fries with that” kind of dialogue we hear every day.

Yet instead of infusing these characters with the ability to speak pointedly and poignantly, the scriptwriters apparently just said to themselves, “Hey, we need emotion conveyed here, so have the character spew an F word.”

It’s painfully obvious and grating. It shows a lack of creativity and skill as a scriptwriter. Any junior high boy can write an F-bomb script and pretend it’s powerful. It’s not.

As the saying goes, “You raised your volume when you should have reinforced your argument.”

I nearly threw a tomato at the screen when a D.C. powerbroker asked another man’s opinion of the story’s protagonist. His answer?

“She’s f—ing smart.”

Seriously? That’s how the scriptwriters summarize the character they’ve spent the last two hours building? Not bleepin’ smart.

Pros and cons of moviemaking aside, however, “Zero Dark Thirty” boldly confronts the collective conscience of this nation on the issue of torture, er, “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

There are protesters at theaters around the country condemning the film because it allegedly “glamorizes torture.” Others criticize it for demonizing the practice.

There are moviegoers who will avoid this film because it graphically portrays the brutality of torture, while others will walk away stunned and contemplative over the authenticity of the portrayal.

So which is it?

Frankly, and surprisingly for a Hollywood film, I think the answer is it’s just … honest. No political agenda, no sugar-coating, just … honest.

For starters, there’s no reasonable way you can conclude this “glamorizes” torture. Crime dramas do that by suggesting if you just punch a guy, he talks. This film, however, shows to what excessive lengths a captor must go to extract information from reluctant, religious ideologues. It demonstrates how brutal and dehumanizing extensive torture is, both for the captive and the captor. It’s ugly, base and stomach-turning.

At the same time, however, the film affirms what many in the intelligence community have testified, no matter how hard the Obama administration tried to silence them, that the “enhanced interrogations” worked. And when the torture techniques stopped, so did the flow of information. Osama bin Laden, the film implies, was caught because torture was used, and he was nearly lost when it stopped being used.

And that’s it.

No trite conclusions. No political agendas. Just a begging question: Torture pays off, but at what cost?

Followed by another question: If you don’t pay the cost of torture, what cost will you pay for not getting the information?

And if there’s anything that makes “Zero Dark Thirty” Oscar-worthy (besides some great acting), it’s that those two questions seem so impossible to answer and yet “Zero Dark Thirty” won’t let you avoid them.

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