Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal (screenplay)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle and Joel Edgerton
In 2008’s The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal created a searingly suspenseful modern war movie about a bomb diffuser addicted to the rush of potential detonation, which became a history-making Oscar and critical darling in the process. It was a grimy and unsanitized piece of work, more obsessed with masculinity on the edge than serving up an overt political agenda.
Zero Dark Thirty is almost clinical by comparison, if no less nerve-wracking. In chronicling the obsessive decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, Boal and Bigelow re-examine the American psyche on a much broader scope. Again they try to keep an agenda out of it and simply dramatize the facts, but the sensitivity and weight of those findings make it impossible to avoid controversy.
The phrase “Depiction is not endorsement” has been used tirelessly to defend scenes of the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees during the pursuit of bin Laden. Among these techniques are sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and, most infamously, waterboarding. Many of these scenes take place in the first third of the movie, directly following soundbites from the 9/11 attacks. It’s as if the movie wakes up from a nightmare only to find itself in another one.
As Melissa Anderson remarked in ArtForum in a review comparing this film to Tarantino’s Django Unchained:
Though operating in vastly different genres—ZDT is a fact-based thriller about events of the past eleven years, Django Unchained an antebellum freed-slave revenger deeply in thrall to spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation movies—both are responses to eras in which the torture and subjugation of other human beings was part of US policy.
Anderson goes on to heavily denounce Django, but the point of that comparison says a lot more about Zero Dark Thirty and the “Any means necessary” terms of the bin Laden investigation. At the center of its vast, intricate narrative is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a woman whose true motivation for this manhunt is deliberately unsaid, but who believes she was spared from death while some of her colleagues were not because it is her sole purpose. Tears drip from her eyes in the movie’s somber final shot, an avoidance of catharsis but not an acknowledgement of guilt. On Chastain’s pale, sharp face there is endless contemplation in place of relief.
If Maya is the moral core of the movie, then her quiet complacency in torture is ours as well. Bigelow develops her much like Jeremy Renner’s character was developed in The Hurt Locker: by dropping us in the middle of her world and watching her operate. The audience’s sense of discovery and understanding unfolds right alongside her’s, though she of course doesn’t know how exactly it will conclude.
This creates an interesting dynamic; thrillers typically rely on pacing and surprises, often the third act’s “Big Reveal.” Because the end result of this story is so well-known, it is more about the process of how we got there and the moral costs incurred. In that regard it has a lot in common with David Fincher’s Zodiac, a true life investigation into the notorious unsolved serial killer case in ’70s San Francisco. Zero Dark Thirty front-loads the interrogations much like the killings were in that movie, precisely because they are not meant as narrative releases for sitting through the story.
Of course the May 2011 Abbottabad, Pakistan raid that resulted in bin Laden’s death is such a masterfully executed and taut piece of filmmaking that it may be perceived as a payoff. Bigelow lingers on the corpses, though, and never lets the sounds of screaming children inside the compound completely fade from the audio track. However apolitical the movie was supposed to be, it was made with the clear intention of confronting audiences about America’s unshakable history of violence.
What makes Zero Dark Thirty tick is not a sense of urgency or self-seriousness about that intention, though, but the ruthless dedication of its main character. Maya was not personally at the Abbottabad compound, but she was involved in nearly every facet of the investigation and, if Boal’s research is to be believed, personally convinced several higher-up C.I.A. officials to approve the raid.
Boal’s script makes almost no effort to make Maya likable, which gives the movie an unintentional feminist angle. She is a hard-edged professional who is very, very good at her job. Her character’s real life identity is still kept confidential, and the impact of this movie is already substantial, but still very much in progress. From a filmmaking standpoint, hardly a negative thing can be said. It is a formally masterful movie by nearly any measure, and if it wasn’t it probably wouldn’t be sparking such fervent discussion outside of that context. Having an opinion about it has almost become more important than the movie itself.