Today, Zero Dark Thirty will be released on DVD. The film has received a great deal of press both for its technical excellence and also its controversial subject matter. It presents an interesting case study in the challenges and ethics of storytelling. Starring Jessica Chastain, the movie tells the story of Maya, a CIA agent who gathered the intelligence that led to finding and killing Osama bin Laden.

Kathryn Bigelow masterfully directed the film, and it’s hard to argue with any of the accolades the movie has received. She tells a story that is fundamentally about intelligence gathering, interrogations, data analysis, and political red tape inside the CIA , and she does so in a way that keeps the viewers at the edge of their seats. When the story comes to the day when the mission was carried out, Bigelow tells it carefully, with intensity and energy, but without the hype of a Hollywood action film. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; far from being about American triumphalism, most of the film chronicles dead ends and frustrations in the CIA.

Much of the controversy has arisen over scenes depicting the kinds of torture made infamous by American soldiers and operatives at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. We’re taken inside a CIA Black Ops facility where “Dan” (Jason Clarke) is conducting “enhanced interrogation” against an Al Qaeda prisoner. The prisoner is stripped naked and humiliated. Suspended by his hands. Waterboarded. Forced into confinement inside a tiny box. Bigelow’s direction walks a tense line, neither glorifying the violence or minimizing it. Instead, she forces us to observe, lingering over the waterboarding, watching as the door closes to the cabinet in which the prisoner is cramped. We look him right in his eyes. We’re simultaneously reminded that this prisoner is a terrorist and also a human being. The tension is palpable.

Uncomfortable Questions

As we watch the movie, we ask, Where is the congruity between waterboarding and the conviction that men and women are made in the image of God? How does one reconcile the call to “bless those who curse you” and the need for “enhanced interrogations”?

In the film, the interrogations reveal an evidential thread that Maya traces (over many years) back to bin Laden, and the political controversy arises from that particular plot point. Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin have all appealed to Sony Pictures to consider reworking the movie to remove any indications that torture led to finding bin Laden.

But Bigelow argues otherwise. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, she said,

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.

Bigelow also argues that depiction is not endorsement (or, as I’ve argued before, regarding other films, that there’s a difference between description and prescription). She labels herself a pacifist and has not hidden her distaste for torture. On paper, then, she agrees with McCain, Levin, and Feinstein in her stance against torture. But she runs into a conflict between her ideals and her vision of the story that needed to be told.

Wishful Telling

For Bigelow, you can’t tell the story of the hunt for bin Laden without torture. The 9/11 attacks were such an affront to our nation that in their aftermath, many of the ordinary rules for how we fought wars and treated prisoners were suspended—openly, and in the eyes of the world. We began two wars, passed the Patriot Act, denied habeas corpus for “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, sanctioned torture, and set the stage for the current political controversy over the CIA’s aerial drone program, which allows for the targeted killing of American citizens overseas.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a story was told to justify a rollback of human rights to both our enemies and our citizens. In the background, we have the fallen Twin Towers, the smoking wreckage of the Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93—tragedies that stir us to action against evil and injustice. In this light, we tell a story about heroism and determination. But it’s also a story about Abu Ghraib, CIA drones, Guantanamo Bay, and rendition.

I wonder if, in some part, the controversy around this film is less about the tale it told than about the tale we wish it told. We don’t want sullied heroes. Especially in real life. We want to believe a national myth of “truth, justice, and the American way.” But reality is full of characters who swing wide arcs on a pendulum between darkness and light, heroes and villains, sinners and saints. We want to tell the story of bin Laden’s defeat without having to remember Abu Ghraib. We want redemption without confession.

Bigelow argues—through her movie and her response to critics—that regardless of torture’s effectiveness, it’s an integral part of the story of the hunt for bin Laden. She said:

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

This sense of sober reality pervades the movie. Rather than showing Seal Team Six to be superhuman warriors, surging with testosterone and screaming as they wreak havoc, they’re more like a work crew, methodically operating a machinery of death that dismantles the compound and kills their targets with grim efficiency. There is no wasted bullet. No wasted energy or action. It’s well coordinated, rational, and absolutely deadly.

Maya’s story, too, is one of grim realism. Her story reveals frustration and failure, watching the CIA fall short and disappoint, even while Al Qaeda successfully attacks U.S. bases and a Marriott in Pakistan (where she happens to be staying). She watches friends die and others abandon hope, even as she remains convinced her hunch is correct. Her sense of purpose becomes almost religious. After surviving the Marriott bombing, she says, “I believe I was spared so I can finish the job.” And when her superiors at the CIA are slow to act on the intelligence she’s gathered about bin Laden’s location, she literally pounds on their doors and windows, refusing to be ignored.

Ambivalence and Resolve

The role could have been a caricature if not for Jessica Chastain’s subtle brilliance. She manages to demonstrate strength and fragility at the same time, showing signs of weariness and ambivalence in the midst of steely resolve. In the film’s closing scene, Maya boards a cargo plane to leave Afghanistan, her mission completed. The pilot jokingly asks where she’s headed, but Maya can hardly respond. She trembles briefly, the fault lines at last crack, and the emotions of her eight-year journey flow.

It’s the humanity of the story that makes it so compelling. The frustration and failure. The grim realism of Seal Team Six’s assault. The dehumanizing treatment of prisoners. The frayed emotions and loss of hope. The lack of superheroes. The overall emotional effect of the movie is ambivalence. There is satisfaction, but none of the triumphalism of Times Square, in learning that bin Laden was brought to justice. Instead, we feel—along with Maya—a simultaneous sense of resolution and sadness. Perhaps, so long as our world is fallen and broken, that’s all we get.

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dr. Jones is seen lecturing his students, saying that archeology is concerned with fact, not truth; if they want truth, they should go down the hall to a philosophy class. I think, in a sense, Bigelow seeks the opposite. She wanted to make a piece of art concerned with truth over facts. She tells a story that allows the viewer to experience the essence of the hunt for bin Laden, an ugly memory of its emotional core. It’s often the nature of art to strike at affections more than intellect, and this is what I believe makes Bigelow’s film so effective and important: when we finish watching, we know in our gut the darkness and sadness of this quest.

This movie should disturb Christian consciences. Because it isn’t merely Maya’s story; it’s our story.