Kathryn Bigelow’s troubling, infuriating “Zero Dark Thirty” is about Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent whose obsessive single-mindedness eventually lands Osama bin Laden in a body bag. Like Ahab, she is fixated on her prey to the exclusion of all else. Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, who also collaborated on “The Hurt Locker,” deny Maya virtually any back story. We know almost nothing about her life away from the film’s decade-long hunt. She is a cipher – a vengeance machine with flame-red hair.
Bigelow began this project when bin Laden was still on the run but changed course when he was tracked down and killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011, in the assault on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. As in “The Hurt Locker,” which was about an American bomb disposal unit in Iraq, Bigelow doesn’t expend a lot of energy putting the commotion into a political context. “Zero Dark Thirty” is essentially, or at least ostensibly, an action thriller. But since we already know the outcome of the SEAL operation, which occupies the final half-hour of this more than 2-1/2-hour movie, the film’s narrative has a methodical sameness. This is a nuts-and-bolts cinematic dossier on how the job was done.
What I find troubling and infuriating is that by turning the hunt for bin Laden, however expertly, into a glorified police procedural, Bigelow neutralizes the most controversial and charged aspects of this story. (To no avail, I might add: The film is controversial anyway.) President George W. Bush is never shown, ditto Dick Cheney, Iraq is AWOL, and President Obama is only glimpsed in a 2008 campaign interview. This is a bit like making a movie about the D-Day invasion without referencing FDR or Eisenhower.
Actually, it’s much worse, since the film traffics in scenes of torture. Its first full sequence, in fact, has a CIA officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), brutally interrogating a man (Reda Kateb) suspected of having information about bin Laden’s courier while Maya, new to all this, observes in hushed compliance. The waterboarding and pummeling and all the rest is presented as crucial to bin Laden’s eventual capture. Mission accomplished, sort of.
In a recent New Yorker piece on Bigelow and the film, the political reporter Dexter Filkins wrote: “According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding. ‘It’s a movie, not a documentary,’ Boal said. ‘We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program.’ ”
In the Filkins article, Bigelow adds: “[T]he film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.” But by not enlarging or contextualizing the meaning of the waterboarding scenes, by avoiding any sense of political partisanship, Bigelow is, in effect, judging. It’s difficult to look at these sequences in a vacuum, which is how she wants us to respond to them. I am not arguing that she should have denounced waterboarding per se. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these brutalities helped bring down bin Laden. This is a possibility that antitorture advocates on both sides of the aisle, if they are honest with themselves, must acknowledge. The problem I have with “Zero Dark Thirty” is that, for the sake of a “boots-on-the-ground” experience, it mucks around in matters of great gravity without ever really getting its hands dirty. (Imagine what Costa-Gavras, who made "Z," or Gillo Pontecorvo, who made "The Battle of Algiers," would have done with this story.)
Dan, the almost sadistically enthusiastic interrogator, is portrayed as basically one of the guys. Maya, who is admiringly called a “killer” by her colleagues, has so little emotional resonance that she might as well be a cyborg. (She is based on a real person.) Bigelow turns her into an existential hero by the end, a lost soul whose life has no meaning once bin Laden is taken out. This is a fancy way of disguising the fact that Maya is a blank. (Is Bigelow saying that, in the “war on terror,” only the blanks can get the job done?)
By showing scenes of torture without taking any kind of moral (as opposed to tactical) stand on what we are seeing, Bigelow has made an amoral movie – which is, I would argue, an unconscionable approach to this material. I don’t understand those critics and commentators who denounce this film’s amorality and then go on to laud the movie anyway – as if a film’s moral stance, or lack of the same, was incidental to its achievement. Are we so cowed and wowed by cinematic technique that we can afford to lobotomize ourselves in this way? Grade: C+ (Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.)