ZERO DARK THIRTY
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong
ZERO DARK THIRTY, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning collaboration, THE HURT LOCKER, arrives in movie theaters with a combination of year-end wins from critics group and a seemingly endless series of articles discussing, defending, or critiquing ZERO DARK THIRTY’s, and by extension Bigelow and Boal’s, treatment of torture. Sides have been drawn between film critics who defend ZERO DARK THIRTY for depicting, but not endorsing torture, its fictional nature (“based on true events”), or simply artistic license. Anti-torture critics see something else entirely, a morally reprehensible film that argues for the efficacy of torture, at least where bin Laden was concerned. Others have argued that ZERO DARK THIRTY will be perceived not just as a fictional film, but as a cultural artifact conveying objective historical and political truths.
ZERO DARK THIRTY, however, is far more morally complex, far more morally ambiguous, than either side allows. The visceral, vocal response to ZERO DARK THIRTY draws on (and depends) on the biases, prejudices, suppositions, presuppositions, and political orientations of moviegoers and critics that, in turn, make ZERO DARK THIRTY a Rorschach test (of sorts). Bigelow and Boal intentionally decided to take a journalistic approach to their subject, presenting the initial scenes of torture and everything that follows with minimal commentary or authorial intrusion. Not a single character discusses torture as a moral or ethical problem. They take it as a given, as just one more means to an end, capturing and/or killing bin Laden, and stopping future terrorists attacks on Americans or their allies.
The initial interrogation we, along with ZERO DARK THIRTY’s CIA protagonist-heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain), witness, is brutal, ugly, and repellent. The American interrogator, Dan (Jason Clarke), doesn’t hesitate to use so-called “stress positions,” hanging a detainee from his arms for hours at end. When that fails to elicit the answers he wants, Dan turns to water-boarding the detainee and, later, still unbroken, he throws the detainee into a cramped box. The cumulative force of torture, of what the Bush-Cheney administration euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” breaks the detainee. ZERO DARK THIRTY leaves unanswered whether the detainee gives any actionable intelligence (unlikely given continuing terrorist attacks), but he gives Maya the one lead, the name of bin Laden’s courier, that proves instrumental, years later, in finding bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Practically every criticism of ZERO DARK THIRTY turns on whether the CIA obtained the courier’s as a result of torture. Op-eds have already disputed this particular account, pointing to declassified reports as evidence that torture didn’t succeed in obtaining the courier lead. What we do, however, is that Boal, an investigative reporter-turned-screenwriter, relied on sources within the military and the CIA as research for ZERO DARK THIRTY, leaving open the question of factual accuracy. It also raises the question of what liberties, if any, filmmakers should take when making a fictional film or rather a fictionalized version of historical events.
There’s no doubt, however, that ZERO DARK THIRTY belongs to Maya. She’s our viewpoint character, our point-of-view character and narrative fiction depends, in whole or in part, if not on a character’s likeability, then their relatiability. Bigelow and Boal purposely avoided giving Maya anything resembling a conventional backstory. At the beginning of ZERO DARK THIRTY, it’s obvious Maya has little, if any, field experience, but we’re told she comes highly recommended, presumably for her high intelligence and analytical skills. Maya emerges as a classic obsessive uninterested in personal relationships, except for a superficial one with another CIA analyst, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), and a few, borderline personal words exchanged with another analyst, Jack (Harold Perrineau).
Channeling all of her energies into locating bin Laden, Maya focuses on working every angle related to the courier idea year after year despite her superiors’ disinterest. ZERO DARK THIRTY occasionally breaks away from Maya’s POV, following Dan as he attempts to obtain information via a well-placed bribe, Jessica’s parallel attempt to find bin Laden by infiltrating al-Qaeda’s leadership, and later, the political machinations between D.C.-based bureaucrats, including the CIA director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), arguing over the pros and cons of approving the raid to kill bin Laden (capturing him is no longer an option) based on the circumstantial information Maya has developed over the last decade. Even then, Maya can’t guarantee bin Laden’s location with absolute certainty, only probabilities. If the raid fails, Maya’s career will likely come to a premature end.
ZERO DARK THIRTY concludes with the raid on bin Laden’s compound by SEAL Team Six. Bigelow purposely stays away from the bombast and hyperbole typical of Hollywood action films, instead adopting a stripped-down, unobtrusive style, minus musical ornamentation, appropriate to the subject matter. If ZERO DARK THIRTY argues that torture works, at least in some circumstances, it also doesn’t romanticize the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The Navy SEALs shoot and kill every adult male, regardless of whether they’re armed or not. Bigelow briefly lingers on the shocked, anguished faces of the surviving children. This, then, is the result of the hunt for bin Laden, partial success at best and not with the promise of the cessation of violence (ours and theirs), but it’s likely continuation for decades to come.
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