With controversial films, moviegoers deliver verdicts with their wallets

(Jonathan Olley/ ) - Navy SEALs raid Osama Bin Laden's compound in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

(Jonathan Olley/ ) - Navy SEALs raid Osama Bin Laden's compound in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

At a time when pop culture is awash in a sea of random-but-connected data points — touching on everything from torture, the war on terrorism and self-censorship to gun violence, race and history — leave it to the audience to provide clarity and consensus.

That, at least, is the cautiously optimistic message of the past week, when movies as diverse as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Jack Reacher” and “Django Unchained” have provided filmgoers with ways to process and respond to contentious current events.

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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.

Even Hollywood — never shy about upping the ante when it comes to gratuitous, bloody mayhem — seemed to recognize that a switch had flipped. Studios immediately canceled splashy premieres and tweaked marketing campaigns for the gun-heavy films “Jack Reacher” and “Django Unchained.” Former senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America (the major studios’ Washington lobbying outfit), announced that Hollywood had “reached out to the Administration to express our support for the President’s efforts in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. Those of us in the motion picture and television industry want to do our part to help America heal. We stand ready to be part of the national conversation.”

If the film industry suggested, at least rhetorically, that it was ready to rethink the violence that films routinely fetishize and celebrate, similar self-reflection was not forthcoming from the National Rifle Association. When NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre finally saw fit to grant a post-Newtown news conference — during which he took no questions from the media — he blamed everything from video games to Oliver Stone’s 1994 film “Natural Born Killers” for gun violence, ostentatiously refusing to mention easy access to semiautomatic weapons and high-powered ammunition. (Since he didn’t take questions, LaPierre couldn’t explain why gun violence isn’t nearly so prevalent in the countries that eagerly import and pirate our most trigger-happy blockbusters.)

LaPierre certainly didn’t blame “Dirty Harry,” the 1971 film that just a few days earlier had been named to the Library of Congress’s prestigious National Film Registry — and that over its lifetime as a cherished American classic has probably done more for the sales of the .44 magnum revolver than any ad campaign Smith & Wesson or the NRA could dream up.

Clint Eastwood’s Harry Calla-han, of course, epitomizes the vigilante ideal that Americans have long worshiped, from Charles Bronson’s vengeful widower in “Death Wish” to Kiefer Sutherland’s gloves-off interrogator in the television show “24.” And, like Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, Eastwood’s Callahan was a world-class torturer, racing the clock with extreme prejudice and a lack of regard for due process that fit right in with the era’s jacked-up anxieties that maybe civil rights had gone too far. (It bears noting that the Library also included “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” a little-known 1973 film about a black CIA operative who foments a violent insurrectionist urban movement.)

But if torture has its place in the pantheon of films of historic, cultural and aesthetic importance, apparently it doesn’t belong in a movie depicting the war on terror, at least according to McCain and his colleagues, who wrote that torture should be banished not only in practice but also in “serious public discourse.” To the viewers who will surely be unsettled by “Zero Dark Thirty’s” portrayal of what was done in our name in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, serious public discourse might seem to be exactly what was missing back then and what is called for now as we contemplate the projection of American power in a vexingly asymmetrical world.

Presumably, the viewers who have already flocked to “Zero Dark Thirty” are better equipped than the commentators — whether well-intentioned or opportunistic — to discern the nuances of a film that, while graphically portraying “enhanced” interrogations, actually makes a stronger case that classic intelligence-gathering techniques succeeded where torture failed in locating bin Laden.

And presumably, such nuances explain a couple of provocative data points that emerged at the box office this past week, which were energetically expressed in two e-mails that landed in my inbox within minutes of each other on Wednesday.

Reader Peter Hoagland wrote that he went to see “Jack Reacher,” which stars Tom Cruise as an Iraq war veteran cut from the same vigilante cloth as Dirty Harry and his successors. Although the reader enjoyed parts of it, he was disturbed — as I was — by the film’s first-person-shooter aesthetic, which puts the audience behind the gun sights of a sniper as he aims at a little girl in a public square.

“Coming on the heels of Newtown as well as the firemen getting ambushed/murdered in Webster NY, frankly I have had it,” Mr. Hoagland wrote, adding that he was “not sure where this national discussion on gun violence is going to wind up, but I for one am no longer willing to support it in films.”

Minutes later, reader Jeff Waters excoriated me for writing an “orgasmic” review of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” taking me to task for condoning that film’s lurid, stylized violence and accusing me of “bloodlust.” (Let the record show that he did sign off with “Have a nice day.”)

I’m not sure a 21 / 2-star review qualifies as “orgasmic.” But I take Mr. Waters’s point that, in my “Django Unchained” review, I wasn’t hard enough on Tarantino’s glib, fetishistic use of violence, even if I criticized him for going overboard with “gunfire, gore and geysers of blood.”

I might have been more troubled by the obsessive reenactments and first-person point-of-view in “Jack Reacher,” but upon reflection I harbored deeper misgivings about the exaggerated, spaghetti-Western violence of “Django Unchained” than I let on — in part because I was able, at least intellectually, to adopt Tarantino’s own ironic distance, in part because I appreciated the political-historical context he used as his conceptual conceit.

So far, filmgoers seem to be making similar distinctions, albeit for murky reasons. Whereas “Jack Reacher” was a nonstarter at the box office, “Django Unchained” scored Tarantino his biggest box-office debut when it opened on Christmas Day, doing even better than his hit World War II-era burlesque, “Inglourious Basterds,” three years ago.

It could be that fans of the Jack Reacher novels simply rejected Cruise as a man who in one book was described as resembling “a gorilla with its face smashed in.” Or could it be that, post-Newtown, Americans are beginning to question an addiction to screen violence that’s as old as “The Great Train Robbery,” and the degree of realism they will and won’t accept in the name of entertainment? Is the vicarious depravity of “Django” okay because it’s so easily compartmentalized as outlandish fantasy? Or does it reflect an unhealthy preoccupation with brutality that Americans still refuse to confront?

Cultural consensus emerges over time at the multiplex and beyond: By this index, “Zero Dark Thirty” will either become the cinematic-shorthand for the war on terror that “All the President’s Men” is for Watergate, or it will be as quickly forgotten as “W.” was when it sought to dramatize George W. Bush’s presidency. While viewers have endorsed Tarantino’s hip, stylized grammar of aggression, it remains to be seen whether they’ll vote for or against next month’s coming attractions, which the Hollywood Reporter recently noted include a startling number of films featuring graphic gun violence.

I don’t know where this national discussion will wind up. But I do know that it won’t be led by politicians, pundits or even presidents. Instead it will be led by spectators who, one confounding data point at a time, will tell us whether a new argument has really begun or an old one has ended in a stalemate, again.

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