Take “Zero Dark Thirty,” a taut thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden from screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow. When the film began previews in early December, it earned near-universal plaudits from critics (I named it my best movie of 2012) and near-hysterical pushback from pundits and politicians, who saw the CIA procedural as a vindication of “enhanced” interrogation techniques.
Citing the film’s gruesome opening sequence of a captive being waterboarded, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain wrote an outraged letter to the head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the company releasing “Zero Dark Thirty.” Focusing on just one of several techniques represented in the film’s portrayal of the intel hunt, the senators — all members of the Senate Intelligence Committee — demanded that Sony add a disclaimer to the film reminding viewers that torture was not a factor in locating bin Laden last year. (McCain brings unimpeachable credibility to the issue of torture, having survived notorious mistreatment while a prisoner during the Vietnam War.)
Just days later, McCain and his colleagues were joined by acting CIA director Michael Morell, who piled on in a memo to agency staff. “Zero Dark Thirty,” he wrote, “creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false.” (Unfortunately, Morell’s employees won’t get a chance to decide for themselves until January, when “Zero Dark Thirty” finally opens in Washington.)
Amid the din — amplified via cable news and Twitter, perhaps accelerated by whisper campaigns from the Oscar competitors of “Zero Dark Thirty” — filmgoers quietly kept their own counsel. When the film opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 19, it was the No. 1 film wherever it played, earning an impressive average of $82,000 per theater during its first weekend. (By way of comparison, the box-office hit “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” averaged just under $21,000 per theater during its opening weekend.)
Meanwhile, in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the inevitable national conversation has ensued about firearms, mental health and a culture of violence that in recent years seems not only to have endured but to have escalated. But this time the conversation sounded different. President Obama, who had resisted engaging the issue of firearms control even as the gun violence epidemic spread during his administration, finally saw fit to put muscle behind his support of an assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines.