Zero Dark Thirty has tunnel vision. It’s relentlessly focused, told so thoroughly and carefully from the point-of-view of the various team members hunting Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that it can seem almost claustrophobic. Huge, world-altering events—a presidential election, political unrest, continued outcries about the pursuit of the war on terror—happen in the film, but they almost always happen in the peripheral vision of the camera. They’re just offscreen, lurking, often simply to let the audience know where it is in the film’s timeframe. Until they rise up and directly affect the film’s central characters, it’s almost as if they don’t exist.
What makes the film so great—and so unsettling, for essentially anyone of any political persuasion—is how much it forces the viewer into this tunnel vision as well. For the most part, the audience is asked to invest its sympathies in Maya (Jessica Chastain, who may give the performance of the year), a young CIA agent who finds herself in Pakistan because somebody somewhere at Langley believes she’s a “killer,” someone who can help those searching for bin Laden understand his post-Sept. 11 behavior. The natural hope is to turn Maya into someone the audience can “root” for or sympathize with. Because viewers know where the story is going, it would be easy enough to turn this into a “Maya fights against the odds and gets the bad guy” story with a big, emotional climax. Indeed, all of the pieces are there in the film’s narrative itself. Nobody believes in Maya’s lead, until she gets creative. And once she does, she has to prove all over again that a particular building holds bin Laden. When she’s finally proved right, it could be a moment of great triumph. Instead, it’s a moment of quiet desolation.
Zero Dark Thirty is, at its most basic structural level, both a tale of revenge and a police procedural. It’s a story about people who are motivated almost entirely by trying to get one guy because they want to see him brought to justice. It begins with phone calls from inside the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, and where the moment could play as manipulative, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal use the moments to situate the audience’s mindframe in the terrible aftermath of that day, when the use of just about any means seemed justified to far too many people. What’s interesting is that as the film goes on, more and more people lose interest in this mission of revenge. The filmmakers place the audience in that mindset for a variety of reasons, but mostly to help viewers understand what drives Maya. But even her motivation changes: Early on, her computer wallpaper is depicted as an image of the Sept. 11 attacks that have so scarred her psyche, but later in the film, the image is of her and a friend who was killed in a later terrorist attack in Afghanistan. She is a woman single-minded in her pursuit. It doesn’t just scorch her soul; it scorches the country’s.
The audience is meant to sympathize with Maya, yes, but Bigelow and Boal never give viewers the easy out of making her a moral conscience for the film. Much of the controversy surrounding the film has suggested that it tacitly supports the torture apparatus built by the Bush administration in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Could one read the film as supporting torture? If a viewer was inclined to, it would certainly be possible. There are enough pieces of information gleaned through the hundreds of detainee “interviews” Maya sifts through to suggest torture helped in the early going of the bin Laden manhunt. But, crucially, all of the information Maya finds—including the biggest pieces—is information she finds or could have found through non-torture methods (including a very big piece of information that had been in the CIA’s possession since the immediate wake of Sept. 11, when it was turned over in a flood of information other countries gave the U.S. to help out in the manhunt). This is at once a film that can be read to argue that torture is necessary, except it’s also completely, completely unnecessary, nothing compared to good old-fashioned detective work (and, okay, a sports car bribe).
No, the complaints about the film supporting torture stem from a far more elemental place: See, Maya supports torture. There are enough shots of her looking distastefully at what’s happening to suggest she doesn’t like it all that much, but she’s also completely fine with turning over a witness she thinks will give her a big piece of information to Dan, an experienced torturer played in a carefully modulated performance by Jason Clarke. (The witness ends up giving her nothing; she figures out what he knows through combing through what he didn’t tell her, a process that could have burned her had she not gotten lucky.) Because Maya is the protagonist, it’s easy to wish she would simply face the camera and say, “Torture doesn’t get results!” or “Torture is the best!” that viewers might understand more thoroughly which side of the debate the film is on. Bigelow and Boal never give us that satisfaction, and Chastain plays Maya as an emotional safe, only letting bits of who she really is leak out in unguarded moments.
Yet watch how Bigelow shoots the torture sequences. They’re horrific, both for the punished and the punisher. This is work that erodes the soul, that erodes the country’s soul. The film this is most reminiscent of is Steven Spielberg’s great, misunderstood Munich, another tale of a nation that found itself shocked by an attack of terrorist brutality, then found its response steadily spiraling out of control. As in that film, where acts of violence were unnatural eruptions in an otherwise ordered world, Bigelow situates the torture sequences—and the later violent sequences that erupt after the U.S.’ torture program is exposed and too slowly wound down—as a disruption of normal human interactions. Even if this is a foolproof way to get information—and the film suggests it isn’t—it’s a highly inefficient way. Bribes and good cop/bad cop routines work much, much better. In addition, it’s helpful to actually see torture depicted like this—shockingly, brutally, and realistically. For too long, the U.S. has tried to act as if it didn’t torture, or as if what was done was simply a series of harmful pranks or not-that-bad methods. Even for viewers who believe the film supports torture, these sequences will be instructive in forcing a reconsideration of just what that term really means.
This is of a piece with the climactic sequence depicting the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Action sequences are Bigelow’s forte, and it would have been very easy to make this a rousingly triumphant moment, a death the whole film has been building to that erupts in a cacophony of perfectly shot action choreography. After all, the killing of Osama bin Laden is one of the few unequivocal American military triumphs of the 21st century, one of the few missions that hasn’t gotten bogged down in quagmire after quagmire, in post-mission questions about the intelligence of the initial plan. (Tellingly, the main reason the CIA and White House are hesitant to sign off on the plan to strike bin Laden’s compound is because of the botched intelligence leading up to the Iraq War, where analysts saw what they wanted to see, instead of other possible explanations.) Bigelow and Boal could have made this an explosion of righteous fury, a nation finally getting itself back in the wake of those devastating phone calls that open the film.
Instead, the raid is shot as one last act of disruptive violence, one last terror that winks out the lives of several people. Women become collateral damage. Children wail off-camera. Locals come up to see what’s happening and are nearly shot. A helicopter crashes and is lost. The mission is a success, in that it gets bin Laden, but there are tiny failures within it. People who aren’t supposed to die are killed. Children are left orphans. Without the corpse of the world’s most famous terrorist leader, this could have easily been a massive international incident, and the Navy SEALs within the film seem to be certain it will be depicted as such until they unexpectedly find bin Laden. There’s no triumph here. This is just people doing a job, and it ends in another burst of horrific, if coordinated violence.
At the end, one man is dead. The intelligence gained from the operation may prove useful, but Maya and her colleagues don’t know for sure yet. Maya traverses continents and chases dead ends and sells her very self to get this one man, and the film constantly asks if it was worth it. Yes, the killing of bin Laden provides an emotional high for her, but it’s one that very quickly fades, as it did for any American who was heartened by the death of an evil man, then forced to question all of the steps that led that way. Osama bin Laden’s hope was to ruin the United States, but he would have been unable to do so via military means. Instead, he caused the nation to bankrupt itself economically pursuing wars of choice, then bankrupt itself morally by selling out what it had once stood for. And for what? For one man, whose influence Maya’s own colleagues weren’t sure was any longer worth his capture or death? This is a thrilling piece of filmmaking, and Chastain’s is a thrilling performance, but it’s always because the film subverts the easy answers, goes for the place where it might force its audience to confront everything that was done to kill just one man.
And always the peripheral vision crowds in. Attack after attack after attack rains down, some killing Maya’s colleagues. (One attack literally happens just outside of her point-of-view—the peripheral vision of the camera becoming literal.) The torture she and others practice is exposed and condemned, and when a new president says on TV that the nation doesn’t torture because it destroys the nation’s soul, they’re all too numb to what they’ve done to even begin to consider what he’s saying. Drone attacks rain down on Pakistan, forcing changeovers at the U.S. CIA outpost there, and Maya slowly, surely unravels, becoming more and more paranoid and eventually learning her paranoia is justified. She closes herself off, becomes a shell.
And for what? The torture and the drone attacks and the pointless war and the ultimately successful manhunt were all done in your name and in my name. Many of these things are still being done, in every American’s name. And for what? We—all of us—got our revenge. Maya got her revenge. One man is dead, and if everything that led up to that moment was worth it, then why does it all taste like ashes?
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