The most difficult aspect of Zero Dark Thirty, the Kathryn Bigelow/Mark Boal dramatization of the ten year search for Osama bin Ladin, is not that the film depicts torture as a tool utilized by the United States of America, but that torture was used in reality, necessitating its appearance in fiction. The myth of American innocence is inexplicably powerful given the bulk of American history, but the idea of this country as one that did not torture died in the years following 9/11 with the approval of the Bush Administration. However uncomfortable Zero Dark Thirty’s opening act plays, however brutal the film’s depiction of waterboarding, confinement, and humiliation, Bigelow’s interpretation of events are a facsimile; what really happened was much worse.
That’s the general effect of Zero Dark Thirty. The hunt of Osama bin Ladin led America into wars and the darker places beyond war, but any attempt to draw something intellectual out of the War on Terror leads either to outrage or justification. Bigelow and Boal try very hard to walk the tightrope between the two—and, based on thousands of thinkpieces on the way torture is depicted here, they failed—and the result is a sometimes thrilling, sometimes laughably clichéd mollification of a difficult era in American history.
To set the mood, Zero Dark Thirty begins with a 911 call from inside the World Trade Center playing over a blank screen. It’s exploitive, but also a chilling reminder of day and the nation’s lust for revenge that followed. Two years later, in an undisclosed CIA Black Site, Maya (Jessica Chastain) witnesses the torture of a detainee with links to Saudi terrorists. The interrogator, Dan (Jason Clarke), appears before his victims as the very picture of swaggering Americanism, shaggy haired and attired in jeans and band t-shirts. Maya watches him work the detainee over, humiliating and waterboarding him. If she’s initially horrified by what she sees, that horror quickly turns to passivity. There’s no moral outrage on her part here: torture is a tool, and tools can be quite useful. She picks up a lead suggesting that a man named Abu Ahmed is bin Ladin’s primary contact with the outside world and becomes obsessed with finding this man, hoping he’ll lead her to the top of Al Qaeda.
The Abu Ahmed plot is Zero Dark Thirty’s through-line, running beneath interludes of torture, hotel bombings, and political rest, but for much of the film Maya is a bystander, watching as her friends pursue their leads. Once Dan is reassigned to Washington (“I’ve seen to many dude’s penises,” he says), she mostly speaks to and plans operations with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), who survives the Islamabad Marriott bombing with Maya and has high hopes that she can flip a Jordanian who claims to be one of bin Ladin’s doctors. Her belief leads her to insist that the soldiers at Camp Chapman dispense with their usual security measures. Camp Chapman is thus bombed. By the time Maya’s Abu Ahmed option remains the only practical one on the table, few within the CIA are as taken with the bin Ladin mission as she is.
But Jessica’s death has a transformative effect on Maya. Recruited into the CIA out of high school for the specific purpose of hunting bin Ladin, the man is now not only responsible for 9/11 but also for the removal—through death or by other means—of Maya’s very limited network of friends. Through two acts of Zero Dark Thirty, her Abu Ahmed lead is put on the back burner. After the Camp Chapman bombing, finding this man is tantamount to an act of vengeance, which Maya pursues like a renegade cop avenging a fallen partner. She is the lone wolf, and bin Ladin is her prey. As good as Chastain is, and she has proven adept at being the calm center of an otherwise chaotic prestige film, lone wolf narratives have been worn out by thrillers of all stripes: by the time she discovers bin Ladin’s Abbottabad compound—and through old-fashioned detective work, no less—and takes to writing the number of days of CIA inactivity on her superior’s door, she’s no longer a recognizable human being. If her eventual acceptance and embrace of torture in her line of work can be chalked up to continuous exposure, much of Maya’s later actions can be explained much more simply: she’s a character in a movie, and things are progressing as they should.
Maya’s journey from initiation to kill stands as a convenient metaphor of this country’s pursuit of vengeance, but it’s particularly disappointing that, save the film’s last shot, her journey is so similar to many that have been filmed before. For long stretches of time, Bigelow and Boal are able to effectively smokescreen this plot. The torture, the way Maya’s team tracks Abu Ahmed, the climactic raid on the Abbottabad compound—these sequences in particular are imbued with a peculiar kind of tension and, in the torture sequences especially, horror. In an age of WikiLeaks and unrestricted access, that the execution of bin Ladin works cinematically is nothing short of a testament to Bigelow’s skill as a craftsman. But Zero Dark Thirty is not the kind of film that invites one to marvel at its creation. At its best, Zero Dark Thirty makes digestible some of the more unbelievable events from the War on Terror. Its violence, dazzlingly executed, is awful to behold. Too often, however, Bigelow and Boal lack the strength of their protagonist. Their promised uncompromising take on a deeply flawed global manhunt is ultimately as compromised, as flawed, as the mission they document.
Perhaps this remains secondary to concerns over the way torture is portrayed as that which brings bin Ladin down. Fine. Before Zero Dark Thirty’s release, when it was scheduled to debut before the election, the talk surrounding the film was that it would unfairly swing the election in favor of President Obama. In the aftermath of its release, the new controversy is that Zero Dark Thirty justifies the use of torture. Generally speaking, I agree with the sentiment that the author of a particular piece of artwork is the least well-equipped to speak of their intent, but I also agree with Bigelow, an avowed pacifist, when she says she would never seek to justify torture. A pro-torture apologist is unlikely to employ thirty minutes of torture as a means of justification. Those sequences of America at its lowest are Zero Dark Thirty‘s finest. If the statement Bigelow makes with her opening isn’t overtly political, then it at least asks the audience to take those scenes in and consider the reality of them. The rest of the film asks nothing quite so serious of anybody. It understands that those among the crowd who are thoroughly disgusted have been through quite the ordeal and offers, with clear eyes and a three act structure, to lead those poor, beleaguered filmgoers to safety.
Zero Dark Thirty. With Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Mark Strong (George), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Duplass (Steve), and Chris Pratt (Justin). Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and produced by Bigelow, Mark Boal, and Megan Ellison. Screenplay by Boal.