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Bin Laden, already? How the movies look back – to the barely passed past

The stealth-modified choppers land in darkness. Explosives blow down doors. Shots are fired, and bodies fall.

But you know that. You know what went down 18 months ago when Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs at a compound outside Abbottabad, in Pakistan. Still, watching the moment re-enacted in Zero Dark Thirty, an upcoming film about CIA intelligence-gathering that's "based on" true events leading up to bin Laden's death, the well-worn story felt utterly, breathlessly new. Predictability didn't weigh against the movie; on the contrary, the drama landed in the gut. Zero Dark Thirty has won several awards from critics' groups, four Golden Globe nominations and is, at this point, an Oscar front runner for Best Picture.

The Academy has always rewarded sweeping historical dramas, but usually the history is a little farther behind us. This is changing: Modern history – visceral and months-ago – is being shaped into entertainment at the movies more quickly than ever before. In 2010, The Social Network told the story of Facebook's founding in 2003. This seems appropriate, since the affinity for packaging real-time experience into entertainment drives social media; an affinity that's now onscreen.

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Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty, earned best director and best picture Oscars in 2009 for her film about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker. (She's carving a niche as a chronicler of the barely passed past.) Next week, The Impossible opens, a film that dramatizes the true story of one family enduring the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It, too, might make the best picture nominees' lineup, along with Beasts of the Southern Wild, about a forgotten Louisiana community during Hurricane Katrina, and Argo, which dissects the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis (the only one of these films with a retro wardrobe, but the story still feels fresh to anyone over 40).

Of course, Lincoln will most definitely make the best picture list, filling the historical-drama slot: beautifully made, cerebral and distant, buoyed by solemnity. This kind of ancient history film provokes academics and experts, ready to nitpick the inaccuracies. But offering a story from 1865 liberates the writer and director to take creative licence. Whatever he puts on screen, Steven Spielberg won't have to look Mary Todd Lincoln in the eye and explain himself.

But Benh Zeitlin, director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, spent time with many people who survived Hurricane Katrina, which leads to a different kind of accountability. When the events are still so tangible, so vivid to the culture, recent history films can be accused of getting nothing right; no matter what, the director's truth will always be eclipsed by the viewer's, or the survivor's. Even worse, recent history films could be seen as obscenities, a form of tabloid exploitation.

"Is it too soon?," asked People Magazine and The New York Times when United 93, film about the 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S. Pentagon, was released in 2006. Maybe it was too soon, since the controversial film died at the box office, despite a riveting, docudrama approach.

But "Is it too soon?" is a silly question; soon is a great time for art, as is later. Art doesn't and can't wait around for a starting gun from pundits and historians. The artist's loyalty must be only to instinct and beauty. The problem, of course, is who gets to enjoy the label "artist"; painters and writers might have a little more leeway than filmmakers (were Hemingway's First World War writings "too soon?"). Movies are born of a potent mixture of art and commerce, and the latter is generally viewed as crass, the former revered.

Like the mainstream entertainment product it is, The Impossible plugs the real-world tsunami into the conventions of an old-fashioned horror movie. Maybe it is prurient to pull cinematic thrills from images that were real only a few years ago, but the effect is startling: We return instantly to that time and our terror. We are invested.

My guess is that The Impossible, like Zero Dark Thirty, won't stir the "Is it too soon?" question in the same way the first 9/11 films did just a few years ago. We've become increasingly adept at turning life into entertainment immediately. Any personal event, from a birthday to a funeral, can be posted for an audience, sometimes within seconds. We package and present ourselves on Skype. Reality TV furiously cycles through human experience; watching Amish people make dinner, and celebrities fall to addiction, has come to seem normal, not voyeuristic. Naturally, Marshall McLuhan knew this was coming, describing the new-media future: "At the speed of light there is no sequence; everything happens at the same instant."

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The good news is that so many of these recent history films are excellent. They are ballsy as hell, and force us to engage with the past in a different, more empathic mode. Film is the medium of feeling, and we need good filmmakers to lead us through the muck of our responses to terrorism, disaster and heartbreak. We don't need to wait to be told how to view our times – we already feel them.

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