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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman | @CinemaInFocus |

3 Stars — Thought Provoking

“Haunting,” is the word that continues to come to mind when we think of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty. War stories are a staple in Hollywood, with great films depicting the Civil War and World War II among the best. Zero Dark Thirty, though, is a stark reminder that war as we have known it will never be the same.

The story of Navy Seal Team 6 and its dramatic intrusion into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden is the basis of this story, and the outcome is never in doubt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a top CIA analyst whose job and instincts have honed her skills to understand the minds and thought processes of terrorists. Her attention to detail has put her at the top of the pack, leading her to discover the clues that ultimately put bin Laden to rest. Like all war stories, this one draws you in emotionally to the core of the battle.

Is every detail accurate? How could the CIA let everyone know exactly what it did? The fact is that this is not a documentary, it’s intent is to convey a sense of purpose and emotion to a detached world. What you come away from the film with is a realization that our collective consciousness about war and global threats has been desensitized to just another conversation we have over coffee in between our debates over other trivial issues. We do not debate the morality of war after seeing a film like this, we debate the film’s ability to get an Oscar.

The paradigm shift that the war against terrorism in the Middle East represents is as haunting as the depiction of war itself. Our grandfathers all knew someone who fought in wars ranging from the battlefields of Gettysburg to D-Day in Europe. Wars were hell on earth and consumed the young of an entire generation. The two biggest wars of the 20th century were against evil on an apocalyptic scale. Today, we hire young recruits to fight our wars for us, out of sight and out of mind.

Almost hidden is the fact that the fallout of our present-day experience is that returning soldiers are wounded in a way that is also deeply hidden. We might debate gun violence endlessly, but last year two-thirds of the deaths from guns were due to suicides, many of them from returning servicemen and women. We have never been blessed with so few losses on the battlefield at any time in our history, but we as a people are experiencing a true loss of humanity, that of being desensitized to the loss of a moral core that used to be the subject of discourse in every pulpit and street corner in our nation.

Whether it is an assumption that arming every man, woman and child at home will make us safer, or whether it is the acceptance of cultural attitudes that it is the government’s job to clean up messes around the world and we shouldn’t be individually inconvenienced, we are living in a time when morality is being numbed and we all live in a self-centered cocoon.

Zero Dark Thirty is a wake-up call, not just to the insidious nature of terrorism, but also to the insidious consequence of a loss of moral debate in our society. Whether the subject is war, protection of the unborn child, sexual slavery or the loss of a sustainable environment for the poor to grow food, we should not be afraid of the debate, but rather we should be the builders of informed consensus. Our individual needs must be kept in balance with our individual responsibility to be at the heart of a moral society.


» What do you believe is keeping us from debating the deeper moral issues of our shared human lives?

» The decision to kill the terrorist Osama bin Laden was different than our decision to put Saddam Hussein on trial. Which do you think was the right choice?

» Terrorism has changed the nature of war. Do you think this has made our world more or less safe?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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