The long-awaited film that chronicles how the CIA tracked down the mastermind of 9/11 opened in Washington this weekend. The Oscar-nominated movie seemed as long as waiting for it to come to D.C., covering more than a decade from the collapse of the Twin Towers to the raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. There are no new revelations here—and it takes about three hours to learn that. Whether it is worth seeing Zero Dark Thirty depends on how much time you have to spare and how much you remember about the war on terrorism. Zero Dark Thirty is certainly not a real history lesson.
Like any Hollywood interpretation of real events, incidents are condensed, dramatized, and manipulated to make for a watchable movie. While the film does raise lots of legitimate issues about how two Presidents have managed the “Long War,” a movie is not the place to look for answers.
Nor is Hollywood’s story of bagging bin Laden much help in seeing the way forward. What the film doesn’t make clear is that by the time the CIA found bin Laden, he was living in semi-retirement. Taking him out was an act of justice, but it didn’t make America all that much safer.
Likewise, both sides have evolved their tactics a good deal over the last decade. Our side, in particular, is fighting a lot differently than it did at the start—and there are serious questions about whether what the White House is doing now is working very well. Over the course of his first term, President Obama went from a strategy of “Bush-lite” to a plan that calls for little more than playing whack-a-mole with what is left of al-Qaeda leadership. Arguably, over the last two years—from Pakistan to the Middle East—Obama’s half-measured approach to battling transnational terrorism has allowed al-Qaeda to climb back in the game, bringing the next wave of the extremist threat.
Watching Zero Dark Thirty and knowing where we are in the terrorism war today makes one wonder if this movie is just the prelude to the next film about how we’ll be tracking the next terrorist mastermind after the next 9/11.
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