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‘Zero Dark Thirty’ defies easy labels

Stationed covert base overseas JessicChasta(center) plays member elite team spies military operatives (Christopher Stanley LEFT Alex Corbet Burcher RIGHT) who

Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain (center) plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives (Christopher Stanley, LEFT and Alex Corbet Burcher, RIGHT) who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' electrifying new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, ZERO DARK THIRTY.

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Updated: March 6, 2013 6:13AM

An article of faith in conservative circles is that Hollywood is guaranteed to genuflect to liberal pieties on any political or cultural issue. Well, that notion gets its comeuppance in the riveting “Zero Dark Thirty” account of the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden.

This film by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal is being slammed by prominent liberals like actor Ed Asner and a few U.S. senators of both parties for its non-judgmental depiction of harsh interrogation techniques that the movie leaves no doubt helped weave the web of intelligence that found and doomed bin Laden.

No one expected this. When word first came out that the White House had instructed the Pentagon to cooperate with the filmmakers, the immediate conclusion on the right was that it would be a work glorifying President Barack Obama for nailing bin Laden — and be released in time to help his re-election campaign. Didn’t happen.

Obama is hardly in the film. No, it’s not about politicians. It’s about the CIA and military front-line grunts dedicated to keeping us safe. The movie’s account of the hunt for bin Laden is punctuated with episodes of attempted or successful terrorist attacks, underscoring the urgency and the tremendous pressures on these people to find the mastermind of the worst attack on the United States homeland and prevent new ones.

Just as it makes no judgment of the interrogation tactics — the uncomfortable-to-watch scenes leave the judging to the viewers — no jingoistic glamor or war-glorifying gloss is applied to the SEAL operation killing bin Laden. The scenes of frightened and panicked children caught up in the raid on bin Laden’s compound reminds us there are innocents on both sides of the war on terror.

Bigelow and Boal banished from their work the triumphant breast-beating of Obama’s “Osama bin Laden is dead” rhetoric. A job had to be done, and the CIA, the work of many personified in the central character Maya and the SEALs got it done.

It is neither a conservative nor a liberal movie. It is cinematic craft and art at their best, telling a dramatic story and describing the plight, dangers, foibles, failures and successes of the people involved. For once, a “based on fact” motion picture gets the big picture right. (Actually, it happened twice this past year, with Ben Affleck’s brilliant “Argo” telling of the rescue of six Americans from the hostage terror of the 1979 Iranian revolution.)

Still, the central controversy about Bigelow’s film is its account of the harsh interrogation tactics and the role they played in finding America’s most wanted enemy. Several senators threaten a witch hunt over the CIA’s help to the filmmakers. On “Meet the Press” Sunday, former CIA Director Leon Panetta said “some” of the “pieces of the puzzle” leading to bin Laden “came from some of the tactics that were used at that time,” though he insisted America could have found bin Laden without them. But that’s not the way it happened.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Bigelow said, “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time. . . . For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.”

Bigelow and Boal were true to their art by being faithful to the truth.

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