It’s difficult to overstate the precision and brute efficiency director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal bring to Zero Dark Thirty. There is not one gratuitous shot or line of dialogue. No composition, no scrap of performance, no musical cue communicates any emotional information beyond the absolute minimum required to navigate the film’s world. It’s so reserved that for most of its running time the controversy that’s swirled around it – Is it a jingoistic celebration of Osama Bin Laden’s killing? Does it embrace torture? – is simply forgotten. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty is so reticent that I admit I had trouble getting into it at points.
But the cinematic craftsmanship is first-rate, and towards the end there are movements and rumbles in the deep. With the subtlest of visual touches, Bigelow allows Zero Dark Thirty to render a judgement that, for Hollywood, is astonishing in its radicalism: That the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the crowning achievement of America’s war on terror, was a sad, morally empty crusade. And that the violence we have become so adept at deploying, and that the Obama Campaign trumpeted incessantly in the recent election, is something to lament and to fear.
Our guide, for lack of a better word, on this journey is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA analyst thrown into the deep end in the aftermath of 9/11. After a black screen, accompanied by gut wrenching audio of phone calls from the collapsing Twin Towers, the film cuts immediately to Maya witnessing her first torture session at a CIA black site in the Middle East.
Some commentators have objected to this juxtaposition, but the effect is Shakespearean rather than pornographic – a grim illustration of evil returned for evil. As Maya watches, another operative (Jason Clarke) strings a detainee (Reda Kateb) from the ceiling, waterboards him, fits him with a dog collar and stuffs him in a horrifyingly small box.
Eventually, Maya becomes used to the torture and complicit in the worldview that justifies it. She and her fellow operatives (Jennifer Ehle and Harold Perrineau, among others) are blessed with youth and witty intelligence, which they use as shields against emotional engagement and self-examination. As she becomes more willing to bounce ideas off her imposing boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), Maya trawls through files and DVDs, videos of interviews and “enhanced interrogations,” and begins to piece together a picture of a mysterious courier who may be the key to tracking down Bin Laden.
The way Bigelow brings us into these characters’ primordial motivations, allowing us to sympathize with and even respect them, while never distracting from the moral ugliness of what they do, is mature cinema of a high order. Dan, the operative with the expertise in torture, neither enjoys nor particularly objects to his job. He addresses his prisoners with casual “dude-bro” endearments, as if he would genuinely prefer getting a beer with them to the obscenities he inflicts. When he warns Maya that politics back home are shifting, and “you don’t want to be the last one caught holding the dog collar,” it isn’t out of contempt for spineless Washington lawyers. It’s just professional annoyance that the ground rules are moving under their feet. Then one day he dryly concludes he’s had enough, and bolts for DC.
Does Zero Dark Thirty suggest torture works? Detainees who are tortured do later give up valuable intel when placed in more civilized conditions. But, consistent with studies of the matter, the movie also suggests torture yields just as much useless and misleading noise: An early scene makes a mockery of the ticking time-bomb scenario, as a broken man is berated with questions about future attacks and can only babble a ceaseless litany of weekdays.
The film’s second half also illustrates the ways legitimate intelligence legwork — patience, stake-outs, cajoling, and old-fashioned bribery — rustle up critical information. One scene suggests the identity of the courier was waiting in a forgotten CIA file the whole time Maya and her cohorts were brutalizing their prisoners. When a high-level CIA operative (Mark Strong) ridicules a White House point man (Stephen Dillane) for nixing the detainee program that could’ve provided proof of Bin Laden’s whereabouts, Dillane’s insistence on legitimate methods comes off not as political ass-covering but as hard-nosed realism. And when Maya herself watches President Obama’s interview declaring the U.S. does not torture, she blinks as if slapped, suddenly reminded that “torture” accurately describes what she’s been doing.
Some reports say prisoners who were tortured later gave up valuable information, though what causal tissue links the first point to the second is thin at best. Other reports deny this is the case entirely. So allowing for cinematic compression, the film’s depictions strike me as within the bounds of what limited information have.
The suggestion in the dialogue that fear of torture motivated several of the confessions is more troubling. Bigelow and Boal were, by all accounts, given unusual access to information on the Bin Laden hunt, though exactly what this gleaned them is unclear. And you have to wonder, given the film’s grim fatalism, if there aren’t now White House PR flacks asking what they got themselves into. If this detail is a fictional invention on their part, I think it would be valid to call them out as irresponsible for it.
But the brute fact is we just don’t know. The matter remains hidden by even the Obama Administration, much less the Bush Administration. The Senate report is still under lock and key. But in a strange way, the film’s allowances for torture’s possible efficacy actually increase its moral power. On paper, even a committed right-wing warmonger would have trouble contesting Zero Dark Thirty’s plot points — and it still comes off as tragedy rather than triumph.
No where is this more clear then in the raid itself, which dominates the climax. The sequence is every bit as masterful as you’ve been told. It is exacting, thorough, and shot with such darkness and portents that you anticipate the Devil himself at its denouement.
But Bin Laden was not the devil. He was, as the movie unceremoniously reminds us, merely a man. After the raid, the camera lingers over the blood and the bodies. In a move a lesser film would’ve fawned over, one of the soldiers tries to comfort a weeping child with a glow stick. But the carnage the soldiers have unleashed is too overwhelming for the empty gesture to bring any comfort.
Before and after the raid, the precision of Chastain’s performance matches that of her director. Maya is remarkably genderless, lacking all the habitual cues we’ve come to expect from American heroines; a pure avatar of single-minded pursuit. Her obsession is fired when her colleagues are killed in a terrorist attack, her own personal 9/11. She keeps no friends or lovers; she drives herself and her subordinates beyond sleeplessness; her determination becomes ever more vindictive and messianic. “I believe I was spared so that I could finish the job,” she declares at one point, without a trace of irony.
For the majority of the film, she remains remote, difficult to sympathize with even when her emotions rage. It’s when she waits, exhausted and stunned – just as the country did the night of Obama’s announcement – for the helicopter to land and the body bag to be brought out, that she’s finally rendered accessible as a representative of us all.
A little later, she’s asked what her destination is now that the job is done, and has no response. And then Kathryn Bigelow, a director of almost unparalleled control and purpose, with not a shot out of place, centers her protagonist in the frame for the first time and allows her to break the fourth wall. Tears streaming from her eyes, Maya meets the audience’s gaze, as if only now realizing she was always being watched; as if entreating us for some absolution, some explanation of what she – of what all of us – has done.
In the packed theater in which I was sitting, the only answer was silence.