All three have been accused of historical inaccuracy, but Zero has come under the most fire. Its original release date, just before the election, heightened suspicions among Republicans that it would be a Hollywood celebration of President Obama’s success in finding and killing bin Laden. Yet Obama shows up in the film only once, on a TV screen, as he is being interviewed about interrogation techniques; in the course of the interview he promises to eliminate torture and restore America’s moral stature in the world. Sitting in the room while the broadcast is being shown, the leaders of the hunt barely take notice of the president.
Since its release, the film has been the focus of a rather intense debate about the role of torture in the film and in the actual gathering of the intelligence that led to bin Laden’s death. At the same time, the massacres last year in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., have reignited the debate not just about gun control but also about what role violent movies play in contributing to a culture of violence. An often-unasked question is whether the glut of media, film, and video-game violence, much of it senseless and a means of mere entertainment, makes it more difficult for filmmakers who might want to sensitize us to certain forms of physical violence or who at least might not want to compete in the directorial oneupmanship that passes for novelty in many of our bloodiest films.
Zero does a decent job of making viewers feel uneasy about torture. The images of torture in the film are at times graphic, though the violence falls far short of what one finds in, say, Tarantino’s Django Unchained — one of the nominated films — or in any of the Batman films, or even the latest Die Hard. The focus is instead on psychological humiliation. Yet, this is also a world in which there are ongoing and potentially devastating threats to innocent civilians and in which interrogators have good reason to suspect that some detainees have relevant information. One wonders whether the dilemma even registers with viewers accustomed to a stream of blood-soaked films.
The most memorable feature of Zero is the performance of Jessica Chastain as Maya, the indefatigable CIA officer whose singular goal in life is to find bin Laden, an ambition that persists over many years, through many dead-end clues, and often against the judgment of colleagues and superiors. Hers is a heroic quest for justice that — to her mind — involves nothing more than doing the job she has been assigned.
Zero acknowledges a hunger among ordinary citizens for inspiring stories — in the words of Bruce Wayne, for dramatic examples and symbols. The pervasiveness of such stories, their popularity, and their critical acclaim is one of the unremarked stories of the year in film, 2012.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published last year by Baylor University Press.