Much has been written about Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden through the eyes of fictional CIA officer Maya Lambert (Jessica Chastain). By a wide-margin, it’s the best reviewed film of a year generally considered a pretty sturdy, upright twelve months for films. It’s been praised as a more-than-worthy follow-up to director Bigelow’s and screenwriter Mark Boal’s Oscar-winning previous release The Hurt Locker and at one point it was all but assured to win its year’s round of awards. Many consider it a seminal docu-drama on America’s role in the global sphere and its much-debated commitment to combating terrorism elsewhere in the world as well as what many would argue instituting its own form of US terrorism in its place. Whatever your opinion about that, it’s weighty material, and more than one person has claimed that Zero Dark Thirty will stand the test of history as a companion piece to the numerous books, documentaries, and journal articles written about America’s involvement in the Middle East during the past decade.
Contrarily however, it’s also the victim of some rather pressing complaints about its treatment of torture, and perhaps due to these same complaints its reputation never really alighted outside its critical darling status. The film does depict several instances of grisly torture inflicted by the U.S. government on an individual believed to hold ties to Osama bin Laden, which many have taken to assume implies an endorsement of U.S. torture-based actions in the so-called War on Terror. Because the film implies US-sanctioned torture of hostages could have led to information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, the immediate reaction was to assume the film endorsed torture as counter-terrorism.
However, in doing so, the public failed to question whether the film endorsed the hunt for bin Laden in the first place. The depiction of the main character and central figure in US efforts to track down bin Laden, someone who is rarely shown outside of her office or in the field, confronts her as someone who devotes the better part of a decade to the hunting and killing of another person and does so with plain-spoken loss and monomaniacal determinism. She has no outside life, no friends, no home; she’s all alone, and when the film’s finale befalls us, it’s reserved, suppressed, anti-cathartic, and almost a non-event. Upon witnessing a decade’s work lying in front of her in a black bag, she can only cry for now seeing no future in her life. It is a blinkered film for blinkered people, a work that actively goes out of its way not to have Maya learn anything or to even tell us much of Maya’s life outside of her hunt. Because, of course, all she knows is this hunt, all she sees is her job, and all she has are blinkers to hide questions of morality from herself. An endorsement for her actions? Not in my book.
The film never goes to any lengths to imply the need for bin Laden’s death or counter-terrorism at all. It merely implies that the individuals who come to see the hunt for bin Laden as a way to channel their obsessive need to pursue can’t but continue their obsessive compulsions. The net sense, of people with no lives coerced into searching for a man for the better part of a decade, of a nation with no actual moral stake in the hunt for bin Laden but simply a perilous need to hunt bin Laden almost like its a passive reflex, doesn’t convey enthusiasm for counter-terrorism in the first place. By acknowledging that torture may have played a role in counter-terrorism, the film is able to tackle the more difficult question, not of whether torture can lead to useful evidence, but whether torture is worth the useful evidence which may come from it. I do understand the counter-claim that, if most people will innately assume the movie does support the mission to begin with, then it does imply the “good” of torture and marks the film for its dangerous conservatism and pro-torture politics. Still, Zero Dark Thirty is an anti-quest, a work about the fallibility of the central goals of its characters, a work about how they are so determined to kill a man they never stopped to question why they ought to kill that man. It is not then an immoral work, but a work about the absence of moralism that recreates this amoralism on the screen to essay the hellhole it produces where human lives use to stand.
I devote such time to the complaints raised against the film out of respect for the film’s capacity to raise discussion. Had it been any other film, questions of brow-raising might distract from the insipidness of the film raising the brows, but Zero Dark Thirty is a film of uncommon intelligence that serves above all else to provoke. It’s ruthlessly complex yet shockingly straightforward, stark yet full of life, immediate yet distant, elusive yet obvious, and unnerving yet all too comfortable in an age of desensitized violence in fictional media and 24-hour news coverage of life as it is known. This mass of contradictions doesn’t really do justice to a film as deceptive as Bigelow’s portrait of war and the men and women who fight them, and no one word or person really could do justice to it. Still, as a work of delayed, messy, even non-existent gratification that plays with the cinematic language of action and thriller-dynamics to construct something almost impressionistically un-momentous, it is an uncommon work of grace and depth with an eye for difficulty and a work of artistic merit, a work deserving confrontation and debate and confusion. For Bigelow’s work is textured enough to invite difficulty, to open itself to confusion, and to thrive on controversy.
Even when she does resort to bold technique, Bigelow presents it in a manner contradictory to how we might expect. Take for example her treatment of the climactic events of the night of May 2, 2011, when a group of US soldiers stormed a compound they believed could hold their target and shot who they believed to be Osama bin Laden. The scene is shockingly subdued and introspective when most filmmakers would present it with all the bombast they could muster. All the while it never gives us any one character to truly connect to or follow and keeps us at arms distance. However, she simultaneously paints the scene in the sickly green light of night vision, the vision of the soldiers themselves, and frequently cuts to first person viewpoints of the mostly nameless soldiers, thereby giving us the personal view of someone we don’t know and who themselves doesn’t really understand exactly what he’s going to find. Of course, we do, and that’s what makes it all the more unnerving. The scene takes its time but unfolds with almost ruthless, dictatorial efficiency, inviting us but securing a certain distance to remind how little we are really seeing, and how meaningless it is to us so far away. Bigelow’s ability to throw us into the mix through first person shots while still keeping us at arms-length gives the film an uncompromisingly lost-and-found feel, like a work of deep personal insecurity. I would say fascinating, but that sounds almost too intellectual and doesn’t quite capture the simultaneous immediate punch to the gut and quiet, somber reflection of the scene. It plays out, not with catharsis, but with a crippling, haunting business-as-usual matter-of-factness. The final image suggests the entire hunt for Bin Laden is banal exercise in going through the motions.
This scene, like nothing else, bullets a chill down the spine. The profound aural silence, as well as the night-cam POV shots, at once put you on the ground and create an otherworldly feel which distances the material, renders it not of this earth, and above all reminds us that the whole film is a form of fiction and we cannot, ultimately “understand” what happened even if something gives us the facts. It’s all restraint at its most harrowing, feverish, and frantic. It creates dissonance, presenting it as a documentary, and thus something we expect to believe as true, and as a work of unmistakable filmic license, and thus not true. Above all, it captures that feeling of “so what now?” all too well, boldly dancing around the question of whether these soldiers are truly accomplishing anything, whether their actions are even worth documenting. Any heroism is stripped clean and washed away, giving us no real sense of conclusiveness and instead only barrenness.
No scene better epitomizes this sobering existential gut-punch of a feeling than the aforementioned final shot of Maya (again, our main character, played like a shadow by Jessica Chastain) waiting on a plane after the raid and being asked “Where do you want to go now?”. In one of the finest reaction shots ever committed to celluloid she gives us too many emotions to list, encapsulating ten years of her searching now gone and no for-seeable future. For all its grand ambitions, Zero Dark Thirty is Maya’s story as much as it is the story of the larger political efforts around her, and in the final scene we realize all too pressingly that to her there is little difference between these two. Zero Dark Thirty harrowingly raises many questions about the effectiveness and ethical nature of the distinctive U.S. brand of counter-terrorism, but above all the question it most profoundly leaves us with is “what is it like to spend ten years of your life with only one goal when that goal is to find and kill a man, regardless of his past actions?” As a portrait of broken, decayed people whose lives approximate political goals and nothing else, it finds lives of obsession and lives of amoral egotism but not lives worthy of heroism.
Rather than any sense of passion and patriotism, the film encircles an aimless malaise in a vise grip, with Maya personifying an America on the edge of something it doesn’t understand and stuck at a standstill even in forward progress. It is not a film that knows the word morality because its characters don’t consider morality. They are workaday Americans conscripted by an amoral juggernaut, people for whom the debate around terrorism has long since moved passed any question of morality, or why they are doing what they spend every day of their lives doing. All that is left is the what, perhaps as a safety mechanism to hide the tensions and horrors they perpetuate too. The film doesn’t address questions of morality because its characters can’t – until the very final scene of the film, Maya doesn’t know what morality means, having coated herself in a cloak of detachment and process-orientation. She cares not about why she does what she does or even what she does, but simply that she completes her mission. She is a Type-A personality who has learned to have no conscience, just like everyone around her, and the question of whether the hunt for Osama bin Laden is good or bad is an oblivion of nothingness to her.
In becoming her, in drifting aimlessly through a quilt-work of images and thoughts that reconstruct the passive flow of time and the formless void of action and reaction without meaning that becomes her mind, Zero Dark Thirty has more to say about the nature of the US in the modern era than any film of the 2010s thus far. It doesn’t comment on Maya or her anti-terrorist acquaintances because they can’t comment on themselves. In showcasing this it sees the whole cloth of anti-terrorism as a grand sigh, a lost cause, a monstrous question mark composed of people who barely even want to look at one another. In Zero Dark Thirty, anti-terrorism is a grand dehumanizer, and if that is the film “supporting the hunt for Osama bin Laden”.. well, I feel sorry for you. Rather than defending torture’s efficacy or lambasting it, this film reframes the question: why are we so willing to support torture, or deny its bruising effect on the human psyche, if we accept that it is effective?
Score: 9/10 (altered upon revisit)