There is a crucial scene in Zero Dark Thirty — Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliantly directed fictionalised account about the search for Osama bin Laden — in which three Central Intelligence Agency officers stop talking and look at a television. On the screen Barack Obama is speaking with a correspondent on 60 Minutes. It’s Nov. 16, 2008. “I have said repeatedly,” Obama asserts, “that America doesn’t torture.” The three look at the screen without a word, and then Bigelow cuts to a close-up of one, Maya (Jessica Chastain). The analyst’s face is a blank. This is, Obama continues, part of “an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”
That vacant face partly explains why Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up so much controversy. Is she stunned by what she hears? Contemptuous? Relieved? Irritated? Indifferent? Maya’s face reveals nothing and offers as much explanation as her silence. How viewers interpret this look will depend on them because here and throughout this difficult, urgent movie Bigelow does not fill in the blanks for them. Given that the opening sequences show Maya helping carry out violent, cruel interrogations of detainees, I read her expression as that of an employee absorbing a new set of marching orders from her next boss — orders that drastically reverse her old ones.
A seamless weave of truth and drama, Zero Dark Thirty tracks the long, twisted road to Bin Laden’s capture, beginning on Sept. 11 and ending a decade later at another conflagration, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. With a script by Mark Boal, this is a cool, outwardly non-partisan intelligence procedural — a detective story of sorts — in which a mass murderer is tracked down by people who spend a lot of time staring into computer screens and occasionally working in the field. It is also a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs, which makes it the most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11, a landmark that would be more impressive if there were more such films to choose from.
The story hinges on Maya, a spiky loner with next to no back story, no friend or family, who’s more of an ambivalent protagonist than a traditional heroine. She is introduced in the first scene during the interrogation of a prisoner, Ammar (Reda Kateb), by another CIA officer, Dan (Jason Clarke). Ammar looks as if he has been beaten. “I own you,” Dan says, “you belong to me.” Dan leaves the room with someone wearing a ski mask; this turns out to be Maya, who pushes him to continue. During this scene and a second questioning, Dan knocks Ammar down, subjects him to simulated drowning and forces him inside a horrifyingly small box. The violence is ugly, stark, almost businesslike and is largely presented without music cues or any obvious filmmaking commentary.
The most difficult scenes occur early and set the grim mood and moral stakes. It is hard to imagine anyone watching them without feeling shaken or repulsed. You see a bruised face, not the punch that battered it. You see a man forced into a small box, rather than hear his screams inside it. In these early scenes there is also talk — threats and pleas.
If Bigelow leaves some of this to your imagination, it is because, I assume, she knows that the viewers for a movie like this one have been following the news for the past decade.
Trusting the audience in this fashion is gutsy and all too rare in a movie released by a major studio. But it is an article of faith in Zero Dark Thirty that viewers are capable of filling in the blanks, managing narrative complexity and confronting their complicity. This is unusual territory for American moviegoers habituated to an industry that preaches simplified morality even as it turns torture into entertainment.
The abuse scenes are crucial to Zero Dark Thirty because they serve as a claim that these interrogation methods are unreliable when it comes to producing actionable information. The second session ends with the screaming, babbling, weeping Ammar insisting that he doesn’t know about a coming attack as he is sealed in the box. The final moment is shot from his point of view, and what follows is a scene of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. This juxtaposition of the abuse and the massacre suggests, in cinematic terms, that torture does not save lives. It is only later, when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, sit across from him at a table, talk to him like a human being and give him food and a cigarette, that he offers them a potential lead.
That valuable clue is a false name, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (Tushaar Mehra). Called a “needle in a haystack” by one character, he becomes the lead that Maya chases over the next eight years and for much of the next hour or so of the movie. Along with her colleagues, including the equally tough Jessica (an excellent Jennifer Ehle), Maya unearths good and bad intelligence, stumbles into dead ends, unearths glimmers of hope and endures, both at a distance and in close, frightening proximity, further terrorist attacks.
She also interrogates suspects, sometimes violently, until the political climate abruptly changes. “You don’t,” Dan cautions her, “want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”
The glibness of Dan’s comment is shocking, but one of the movie’s most radical, unpleasant themes — radical because it is so unpleasant, especially for an American fiction film — is that these are employees doing a job. In reality there were those who objected to the way that detainees were handled. But this isn’t a movie about those who protested. This is about those who did not protest, who went along and who interrogated detainees deemed “enemy combatants” in what the former secretary of defence Donald H. Rumsfeld described as “a war like none other our nation has faced”. The movie shows the dark side of that war. It shows the unspeakable and lets us decide if the death of bin Laden was worth the price we paid.
There is much else to say about the movie, which ends with the harrowing siege of Bin Laden’s hideaway by the Navy SEALs (played by, among others, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt), much of it shot to approximate the queasy, weirdly unreal green of night-vision goggles. Bigelow’s direction here is unexpectedly stunning, at once bold and intimate: she has a genius for infusing even large-scale action set pieces with the human element.
One of the most significant images is of a pool of blood on a floor. It’s pitiful, really, and as the movie heads toward its emphatically nontriumphant finish, it is impossible not to realise with anguish that all that came before — the pain, the suffering and the compromised ideals — has led to this.
zero dark thirty(a)
- Director: Kathryn Bigelow
- Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt
- Running time: 156 minutes