Zero Dark Thirty : Hamlet :: Revenge : __?__

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Zero Dark Thirty has garnered nearly everyone’s attention this winter. Kathryn Bigelow directed the film, her second outstanding film that takes a look at war (or situations related to war). Her first, The Hurt Locker, ranks on my list of best films ever. The Oscar committee stunned everyone by giving her Best Director, snubbing Avatar (directed by her ex-husband James Cameron).

But having a woman director isn’t the controversial point of the film. ZDT tells the story of the hunt and eventual killing of Osama bin Ladin. Everything about this film hit the stride: pacing, scene-writing, overall story arc, sound design, visual storytelling, emotional hooks, rising action and climax and resolution. I highly recommend seeing the film, and not just because “it’s a famous story” or “you should really go see it to know what happened.”  It’s a great film, and a strong contender for Best Picture.

The debate has raged over whether the film portrays the facts accurately, or whether millions of people will see the film and walk away thinking torture is a great tactic because it gets results.

The Economist magazine presented my favorite counterpoint to that pragmatic line of thinking: There are two problems (at least with torture) in the name of good: 1) there’s no way to know if the suspect is giving accurate information; and 2) as the leader of world democracy, we lose too much credibility when we bloody our hands. It’s a great article and I recommend taking a few minutes to read it.


Anyway —

As I sat in the theater and watched a fictional woman (the combined force of all the actual CIA agents who did the footwork to find bin Ladin) devote every inch of her being to having bin Ladin killed, as I saw through the green-tinged night vision goggles of Seal Team Six the moment when the men put a bullet in one of the wives and then tried to shush the screaming children … I found my meta-brain churning away about the idea of revenge.

The Seal officer was trying to soothe the screaming kid. “It’s ok! It’s ok!” He pulls a lightstick out of his pocket, snaps it to bring up an orange glow, and waves it in front of her. “See? Cool, huh? It’s ok. We aren’t going to hurt you. ….Who’s this man over here? what’s his name?” (They were trying to get a positive ID on the body of the man shot on the 3rd floor, which turned out to be bin Ladin.)

But it wasn’t ok.  Flip the tables, walk in their shoes, and those kids had just watched armed intruders shoot down their father (or uncle or whatever) in cold blood.  Were the men in the house guilty? Absolutely.

Then why does revenge feel so empty?

My mind traveled over to Hamlet. (Any discussion that ends up in Hamlet is an extra-good discussion to me.)  Among the many themes woven into that incredible work is an intense study of the fine shades of difference between lawful passion and consuming revenge; between justice and vengeance.  At the end of Hamlet for the audience, despite knowing that Claudius has finally got what was coming to him, the pile of dead bodies on the floor robs the audience of a true satisfaction.

I fount Zero Dark Thirty stirred the same emotions for me.  I thought back to the day bin Ladin was killed, and a roomful of curious but troubled seventh graders asking me whether we should be happy that the arch-terrorist had been killed.  Yes, I believe that justice is a godly virtue. The psalmist prays for God to shatter the teeth of the wicked and break the arms of people who abuse the poor.

Over 3,000 coalition military personnel have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, the optimistic moniker given by the US/UN to the mission to break the Taliban, kill bin Ladin, decapitate al-Qaida, and restore America’s security in the world. That’s a lot of dead bodies piled around on the stage as we get ready to let the curtain drop. And we’re still coming to grips with our own civil rights abuses that can’t be swept easily under a cry of “Tu quoque!”

Perhaps if humans could be truly righteous, someone would figure out how to engage in military combat without the mess. I don’t know.

But ten years after we invaded Afghanistan, the victory seems hollow. “We’ll show them!” served as enough of a rallying cry in the wake of 2011 (by the way, Bigelow does an amazing job of evoking all those 9/11 emotions for her film with just audio recordings of that harrowing day). Tobe Keith reminded us all that if you mess with America, “we’ll put a boot in your ass — it’s the American way.”


Is the only biblical avenue given to fallen humans in a wrecked world the hollow tang of revenge-justice?

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