Zero Dark Thirty (2012): Written by Mark Boal, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Captain Jack Harkness. No, I am not kidding. Rated R for: Strong violence, disturbing images, including torture, and language. Running Time: 157 minutes.
I don’t suppose there’s much use in putting a spoiler alert in a review of a film about Bin Laden. We know how this story ends (and more or less how it begins). 9/11, Tora Bora, Black Sites, Abbottabad- these are words everyone not in stasis for the past 10 years have heard. There are few things that stir passions (on both sides of the political spectrum) than mention of the War on Terror, CIA black sites, or the Bush detention program (i.e. the torture policy). A lot of what people think about Zero Dark Thirty, as a result, will depend to no small extent on what each viewer thinks about the actual events, policies, and figures being dramatized.
At the center of the film is Maya (Jessica Chastain), representing the female CIA agent (actual identity still unknown) who we now know was the driving force behind the search for Bin Laden himself in the years leading up to his death. Full of a Captain Ahab-esque obsession with finding the mastermind of Al Qaeda, most of the first two hours of the film are devoted to Maya’s nearly decade-long search for leads on Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Through years of painstaking efforts- interrogating (and sometimes torturing or abusing) detainees, tracing and locating phone calls, cross-checking terrorist leaders’ “war names” with their actual names, and sometimes just making leaps of intuition- Maya sifts through the mound of false, outdated, or misleading intel before eventually finding the actual needle in the haystack; the identity of Bin Laden’s top courier, whom her people are then able to track to the fateful compound in Abbottabad. This long and painstakingly detailed journey is punctuated with depictions of several actual Al-Qaeda attacks in the years after 9/11, reminding the viewer every so often of the very real consequences of failure in Maya’s line of work.
Maya is hardly a likeable character, by any stretch of the imagination. Her reasons for continuing to pursue Bin Laden even though he himself is no longer an immediate threat are compelling (and most people who see the film will probably agree with her arguments), but she has no friends, no social life, and (apparently) no close family. When dealing with those who disagree with or oppose her she’s downright aggressive, and even around people who like or support her she’s abrasive and distant. Not that she’s without reason to be- despite the growing strength of her evidence about Bin Laden, she has to practically bully her way through layers of thick bureaucratic tape to get anything done about it. Her passion, her energy, her fierce intelligence, and her will to succeed do bear fruit, after 10 long, painful years. But although the extent of her success is enormous, she still seems a rather sad, tragic figure through it all- she finally corners her Moby Dick, but when the raid is over, what is she ultimately left with?
And the answer to that, along with what one should think about everything else in the film, is left entirely in the viewer’s hands. If there’s one thing about Zero Dark Thirty that impressed me the most, it’s the movie’s near-total lack of commentary on its own subject matter. Maya and the other operatives and agents working in bases around the world are not self-righteous super-patriots. They are just people doing their jobs, using whatever tools (torture and otherwise) that are made available to them. A few American flags are hanging here and there, but no one decks themselves out in red, white, and blue. Not once does a single character opine on the morality of war or torture. There are a few scattered comments about needing to “protect the homeland,” but they’re delivered in a tone of voice less “We are the defenders of Liberty, Freedom, and Democracy!!!” and more “The boss wants the donuts ready and in the display by 6. Get on it.”
Scenes of terrorist attacks (as well as the final raid on Bin Laden’s compound) are shot with an almost total absence of music- no weeping violins are to be heard during the recordings of 9/11 or the London bombings, and Bin Laden’s death is not followed by blaring trumpets. The Special Ops team celebrates and congratulates each other upon returning to base, but it’s probably something they would do after any mission, regardless of the target.
This straightforward, business-like atmosphere of the film also applies to the torture scenes in the beginning, which have been the source of much controversy of the not-so-delicious variety. The primary accusations against the film since its release have been twofold- one, that the film promotes torture as an effective anti-terrorism policy, and two, that torture was crucial to tracking down Bin Laden (something the CIA has gone to GREAT lengths to claim was not the case). Honestly, anyone still pushing either of these arguments has probably not seen the film. No, no one ever explicitly says, “You know, that torture program we had was kind of a bad idea,” but that’s because it doesn’t need to. The opening scenes of torture do not bring Maya and her partners any new information. They only get what they want AFTER they stop torturing their prisoner and feed him a decent meal. Yes, you do have to apply your critical thinking skills, but when you do, the idea that this sequence is somehow subtly promoting torture falls apart rather quickly.
Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best films of 2012, and easily one of the most important in a year full of important films. It is not a loud film of triumph, or chest-thumping patriotism. It’s somber and serious; it’s editing and direction downplayed and quiet. As the Ops team heads over the Afghan-Pakistani border for the final raid, there’s a shot of their choppers against the mountains of tribal Pakistan. Flying through huge crevasses in the earth, the top-of-the-line helicopters, carrying several dozen of the best soldiers in the world and millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of hardware, look like nothing more than tiny insects next to the mountains. What is the shot supposed to signify? Should it signify anything? Maybe, maybe not. I guess that’s up to us.