Watching Ourselves and the Oscars – Part 1

We at Watching Ourselves are not so enveloped in our own personal trips down memory lane to completely ignore film’s big night.  So, and with the full acknowledgement that this is publishing a good two weeks late, here is our version of a response to the Academy Awards.

Why Zero Dark Thirty should have won Best Picture.

By Tim Barlow

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Zero Dark Thirty deserved Best Picture because it didn’t patronize the audience.  But I’d like to start by briefly discussing why (I believe) it did not win.  After its initial screenings and release, Zero was receiving a lot of praise and Oscar buzz, including assured predictions of future Best Picture glory.  But then something happened.  Politicians began to decry the film’s vivid inclusion of torture.  They began issuing press releases about these scenes and the film’s indirect assertion that it was through information initially gathered during such interrogations that eventually (after many years and being combined with other, non-torture derived, intelligence information) led to Bin Laden.  And this in turn created quite a bit of fodder for our 24hr news cycle, right about the time when academy members were casting their ballots.  A vote for Zero is a vote for torture, so let’s all put our heads in the sand.

Politicians weren’t denying that the U.S. did torture detainees, they just don’t want it to seem like relevant information to Bin Laden’s killing came from torture, as if taking away the effectiveness, suddenly makes it less repugnant.  As if getting Osama in the end would justify torture.  Maybe some information derived from water-boarding and other methods, led to Osama, maybe it didn’t, but the bigger question is whether getting Osama was worth the means to get there. That is what this film asks both of the country and the individual, and does so without showing its cards; it’s just a shame that some felt they had to protect the public from asking such questions.

Zero Dark Thirty deserved Best Picture because it didn’t allow a story to be turned into legend.  When I first heard about this movie, it seemed too soon, didn’t it?  The operatives involved are still alive and working.  Most people who would see the movie in theater, can remember where they were when they heard about a plane crashing into The World Trade Center.  Even the administration behind the actual mission was still in the White House.  It just felt too close, still, and for that reason not appropriate.  But in the end, the opposite turned out to be true.

Argo and Lincoln both examined bright spots in America’s past. Even Django essentially rewrote a portion from our country’s darkest chapter and turned it into something we can more easily digest; at least those racist rednecks got theirs. But Zero’s recency shines a light onto the here and now.  No time has past for the uglier parts to gradually be forgotten.  Memories haven’t faded or stories tweaked each time they’re told, softening the edges over the years into a warm glow.  Targeted killings don’t deserve to have lily white heroes and stark clear lines between right and wrong, the kind we so often need for memories to make sense.  Zero, because of its recency, and therefore its necessity for gritty honesty, is a (much needed) tour of the sausage factory.

Zero Dark Thirty deserved Best Picture for convincingly depicting individual determination, realized.  This year’s films largely featured driven, self assured, protagonists, moving the plot along whether others were with them or not.  For Lincoln it was passing the 13th amendment. For Jean Valjean, it was living a life worthy of the 2nd chance he had been given.  For Tony Mendez it was getting the hostages out alive.  For Georges, it was taking care of his dying wife.  Individual determination. Perseverance. Passion.  You can rest when you’re dead, kinda stuff. But the scene that actually sealed my pick for Zero is actually its last scene, where our protagonist, Maya, is sitting alone in a plane, after spending 12 years completely focused on her mission to find and kill Osama.  The pilot says “You must be pretty important, having this whole plane to yourself”.  He then asks, “Where do you want to go?”. Maya, doesn’t respond and just sits looking forlorn, and lost.  There may have been a single tear, but honestly I don’t remember, and it’s really not necessary anyway, because the point has already landed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  Where can you go?  What can you possibly do, now?  Shouldn’t anyone else be here with you?  What do you even know how to do, besides what is now, done.  This scene happened to focus on someone who had made their life’s work, killing a terrorist.  But maybe it could have been about a guy who finally gets the business recognition he’s been working towards.  Or a successful athlete who retires.  This scene, with its haunting simplicity, perfectly captures the feeling when the only door you’ve been knocking at for so long, finally opens.

Zero Dark Thirty deserved Best Picture for reminding me of the power of the individual.  I haven’t had a lot of hope in America lately with our drone attacks, a politicking well-lobbied congress, endless wars, etc… but Zero reminded me that we are a country made up of individuals.  Maya unflinchingly pursued with dogged determination her goal of finding Bin Laden.  The movie paints a clear picture that without her, we would still be looking.  America is the result of our combined individual passions and drives, and our country’s values mirror our own.  I may not believe in torture, but I believe in safety and freedom from fear.  I may not believe in targeted killings, but I was pretty scared and angry after 9/11, and I’m not sure what I would have done if you had put me in a room with Bin Laden and a gun in my hand.  So when I feel trapped and hopeless, it will be important to remember and ask how much do I care?  Is it enough to change?

So that is why Zero Dark Thirty was robbed.  Also, I kind of have a crush on Jessica Chastain.

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