Musings: Five films that get the Middle East more right than 'Zero Dark Thirty'

I know that I disagree with fellow PDC writer Travis Hopson about Zero Dark Thirty. That's because I'm already ticked off by the very first paragraph of his review, in which he suggests that people who take issue with the use of torture in Kathryn Bigelow's film are misinformed. According to Travis, the film absolutely makes it clear that Bigelow isn't making any moral absolutes. The fact that people are questioning the inclusion of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, Travis says, can only be explained by the suggestion that "these people have not seen the movie."

Well, HARUMPH. Because I finally saw Zero Dark Thirty, the film I was most looking forward to for all of 2012, on Wednesday night. And it's ... fine? I see the overwhelmingly positive critical response and its Oscar nominations and all the surrounding hoopla. But I don't think, by any stretch, that it's the end-all, be-all of films about the Middle East. It's not a flawless triumph.

And I will argue with Travis, day in and day out, about whether it champions torture, or at least champions the CIA's belief that the organization needs torture. Because, as ambitious as the film is - such a great ensemble, solid directing, a good soundtrack, all that - the lack of clarity regarding the torture issue bothers me. The moral absolutism of main character Maya, a plucky white girl who grows steadily more desperate as the years pass but oh, look, everyone, she's been right all along, also bothers me. Nothing about the war in Iraq is black and white, but with Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow suggests that the integral individuals involved in the search for Osama bin Laden were totally in the right all the time about everything.

Eh. Shrug. I don't agree, clearly. So I'm presenting some alternatives, because I've had enough fun picking on Travis for the time being, even though we will always disagree about Bigelow's Point Break - it's about the archetypes of American masculinity, Travis, not just "small, meaningless movie" about surfing. Duh. Anyway, I've made my own list of five modern films that do the post-Sept. 11, 2001, climate better than Zero Dark Thirty. It's not like Bigelow has made a totally worthless or bad film. There are just better ones out there.

Body of Lies

Probably one of Leonardo DiCaprio's most underrated roles, he starred alongside Russell Crowe in this 2008 film from director Ridley Scott. The film, based on a novel by Washington Post reporter David Ignatius, focused on CIA agent Roger (DiCaprio), tracking a terrorist through Iraq and Jordan at the behest of his boss, Ed (Crowe). Forced to somewhat team up with Jordanian intelligence member Hani Salaam (Mark Strong, who is also in Zero Dark Thirty and Syriana, as well as in my sexy dreams), Roger gets caught up in the duplicitous nature of the U.S. government while directly experiencing the varying kindness, desperation, ruthlessness, and loyalty of the Jordanians he meets. Don't know if you knew, but not all Americans are good and not all Middle Easterners are bad. DiCaprio was gritty and way more masculine than we usually see him; Strong wore a lot of pocket squares, because he's a fucking boss; and, most importantly, screenwriter William Monahan, who also wrote another DiCaprio film, The Departed, created a tense, thrilling environment in which anything could happen, and believably did. Plus, seriously. Did I mention the pocket squares?

Paradise Now

I sob like a starving newborn suffocating to death (I'm not sure what other entity could create sounds as tragic as I did) whenever I watch Paradise Now, a 2008 film from Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad. Paradise Now won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for the Oscar but lost to South Africa's Tsotsi, which is crap, but is kind of unsurprising given how controversial the nomination for the Palestinian film was in the first place. About two childhood friends who get recruited to become suicide bombers in Tel Aviv, Paradise Now is challenging and enthralling, a consideration of the economic and emotional factors at play in the solicitation of these men. Most impactful, though, is the film's probing at the construction of masculinity in Muslim culture and dissection of the political power plays that keep the Palestinians and Israelis at odds. In Zero Dark Thirty, the bad guys are bad just because they're bad. Paradise Now takes the idea of "bad" guys and totally tears it apart, making for a visceral, emotionally wrecking movie experience. Kleenex. So many Kleenex.


Unlike the other films on this list, Restrepo isn't fictional; it's a documentary from writer Sebastian Junger and the late photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who died covering the Libyan civil war in April 2011. Because it's thoroughly nonfiction, Restrepo is ridiculously important for understanding what soldiers experience directly on the ground, following the members of a platoon in the super-dangerous Korengal Valley in Afghanistan and comparing what they actually do every day with their observations on what they thought war would be like, what they think is going on at home, and what they want to do when they can return to the U.S. It's sombering and saddening and a jarringly insightful look into the military-industrial complex that has dictated our foreign policy for years, along with how that ideology has trickled its way into young men all across the U.S. I saw Restrepo at around the same time I read Jon Krakauer's book Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, and I couldn't decide which did a better job at depicting how senseless and fucked up the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become. They'll eviscerate your faith in everything.


Syriana is nearly impossible to follow, and it's explicitly wonderful for just that reason. A dizzying juxtaposition of storylines and subplots and tangents and political motivations and nepotism and greed and corruption and all the things that make movies excellent comments on the human condition, Syriana is, perhaps moreso than any other film on this list, a magnificently done interrogation of the laziness and underhandedness of the U.S. government. It asks the right questions of our intelligence community and its leadership, of bureaucratic infighting, of the oil industry, of our foreign relationships, of our international shadow and imprint, and of our tendency to tangle carrot and wield stick and expect everyone else to fall in line with our interests. Syriana is an angry movie, and it has the right to be. Absolutely George Clooney's best work ever, and I get legitimately pissed off when I read negative reviews of it. Entertainment Weekly gave it a B-? Bullshit.

The Hurt Locker 

Because I shouldn't have to explain this one, so I won't go into a lengthy spiel about how nuanced the character development is or how fine the acting or how gut-wrenching the stakes are. But I'll say this: The Hurt Locker is fully and totally and overwhelmingly Bigelow's most masterful work, a fantastic glimpse into the aimlessness and recklessness we desire in the men we send off to war, qualities we are then revolted or discomforted by when they get back. The Hurt Locker pretty damn near won all the awards back at the 2009 Oscars, and it deserved every one (and it should have nabbed a Supporting Actor nomination for Anthony Mackie; I'm still salty over that). Jeremy Renner's character, Staff Sgt. William James, muses, "Everyone's scared about something, you know?" - and it's that reasoning, that acknowledgment of fear and subtle refusal to give into it, that reinforces the film's unpredictability. It's just fucking perfect.