Audiences can also tell whether they’re being respected or coerced. The Oscar-nominated CIA thriller “Zero Dark Thirty”opened like gangbusters here in January, when its top-performing theaters were (surprise, surprise) in Tysons Corner and other Northern Virginia locations convenient to military, intelligence and policymaking personnel. Despite premature criticism from politicians, journalists and activists who took issue with the film’s depiction of torture and its role in the search for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” has found a large and receptive audience of viewers who presumably can judge for themselves whether waterboarding or old-fashioned intelligence-gathering proved more crucial in the hunt.
The debates about violence — whether vigilante or state-sanctioned — come down to one conclusion: that in a world of proliferating media, the ability to decode what movies say and how they say it has never been more important. Media literacy has now become as important as the three R’s. We still have a long way to go in making media literacy an everyday part of school curricula and living-room conversations. But generations raised on a steady diet of visual information have proved remarkably astute in sifting through movies, their messages and the moments when they go too far.