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"Zero Dark Thirty" tops box office with stealth brilliance

Box office receipts have given Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial film “Zero Dark Thirty” the coveted opening weekend lead, an indication that regular Americans don’t care about the critics’ assertions that the motion picture is nothing more than a snuff film or a civil libertarian’s nightmare. For most Americans, the movie theater is the closest we will ever get to witnessing the moment Osama Bin Laden was taken out.

The multiple Academy Award-nominated film, which chronicles the CIA’s decade-long manhunt for the 9/11 mastermind, isn’t as emotionally or artistically poignant as Bigelow’s previous war film “The Hurt Locker” but art isn’t the end goal anyway.

“Zero” is stealth brilliance in that it moves with the speed and style of an episode of HBO’s “The Wire”: gritty and episodic. There’s lots of computer clicking, plodding interrogations, car rides and yelling bureaucrats. Jason Bourne never shows up with a shot of adrenaline. The main action sequences are devoted to the Al-Qaeda leader’s killing by SEAL Team Six and even those final moments are relatively anti-climatic. I got more goosebumps watching the Ravens-Broncos playoff.

The film’s lead character Maya is a fictional stand-in for a real female CIA analyst. The redheaded and red-blooded Maya hates politics and loves lighting up her superiors. She has more passion for data point minutia and shows initial disdain for the Navy SEAL team and their shock and awe swag. “I wanted to drop a bomb,” she says, referring to the Pakistani compound where she traces Bin Laden. Thank goodness, someone rerouted that idea.

Jessica Chastain as the unforgettable Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated film "Zero Dark Thirty."

Jessica Chastain is flawless as the relentless CIA analyst Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated film “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Emotional scenes are used sparingly but their scantness is no accident. The fact that the film sticks with the many declassified details of the campaign while leaving the emotional wrangling to the viewer is refreshing. I don’t always want and never need a movie to tell me how to feel. The much-reported torture scenes are brutal but for a generation that was raised on Quentin Tarantino and Jack Bauer, the shock won’t be in the violence itself but in the infliction of it. Plenty of good ethics and morality discussions with your friends will ensue.

All that to say, I still consider this film a must-see event in the same way that previous 9/11-related films were. It’s historically relevant and is both an inspiring and enlightening look at the many turns this nation has taken since that dark morning in September.

The highlight of the film for me was another Oscar-worthy performance by Jessica Chastain. Few will recognize her white-knuckled, snappy Maya as the squeaky, curvacious Celia Foote from “The Help.”

After seeing “Zero Dark Thirty”, swing by your local bookstore for a more in-depth look at the rise and fall of Osama Bin Laden. “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright is a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the road to 9/11 and is an authoritative biography of both Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

NBC Middle East correspondent Richard Engel’s memoir “War Journal” chronicles his five-year stint in Iraq and includes some fascinating passages about Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and how both men had separate but similar strategies to turn Afghanistan and Iraq into “holy wars” for militant Muslims to kill thousands of Americans and subsequently bankrupt the U.S. government.

U.S. Navy SEAL team.

U.S. Navy SEAL team.

You can also learn the real story behind the hit on Osama Bin Laden not from Hollywood but from the Navy SEAL members themselves. “No Easy Day” is the memoir of SEAL Team member Matt Bissonnette and his rise through the ranks of the mysterious unit. The book notably starts out with Bissonnette training at the SEAL river war facility at the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. It was my privilege recently to see some of this facility and it is great to think of the role Mississippi plays in SEAL history.

One final note: In addition to the Bin Laden raid, Bissonette and SEAL Team Six took part in the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009. This is another SEAL success story that Hollywood is taking a crack at. Stay tuned.

About Stephen McDill

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