“There are two narratives,” Maya, the paranormally selfsure protagonist of the extraordinary Zero Dark Thirty, tells a group of Navy SEALs about to be tasked with the capture and execution of Usama bin Laden. They’ve gathered in Area 51 in Nevada, known as “The Box” to some, “Dreamland” to others, a place where government research secrets are locked away; all that’s left to us are speculations and projections, lurid fantasies, stories uncontained by the rational. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, knows something about that. Her early films were outlandish rips on disreputable genres: vampires slashing and gorging their way through desert nightscapes; SoCal actioners with rococo plot architecture and Zen For Beginners dialogue; gunned-up urban melos thrumming with psychic snaps, military line formations and sick dread. Bigelow’s story was that of sub-coherence and frenzies of tone married to one of the surest compositional senses around. She was a bombthrower, a slippery maker of strange art objects in easy-credit genre wrapping—in short, an American filmmaker, fully in the tradition. The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s first collaboration with the screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal, was a thematic leap forward, a grunt-cynical meditation on the contradictions between altruism and nihilism, bravery and death wish. As potent as The Hurt Locker was, Zero Dark Thirty ups the ante in every possible way. The verité immediacy has been shorn of fashionable zoom and jitter, the accumulation of event underinflected to a nearly monomaniacal degree for a Hollywood product. The hairs on Boal’s and Bigelow’s necks must have stood up when they happened upon “Jen,” the CIA analyst credited with figuring out bin Laden’s whereabouts. Every story needs a hook, and this one’s irresistible: one woman clings to a strand of information for years, a single name, teasing and testing a theory, using her gifts of deduction and suasion to divert the course of an imperial bureaucracy to one sole aim.
Iconoclastic filmmakers test the limits of our identification with their characters; they poke at our sore spots and risk kneejerk dismissals (“unreal,” “unrelatable,” “unsympathetic.”) But Zero Dark Thirty is unusually severe in its demands on a viewer who may not be given to a charitable view of the Central Intelligence Agency. Jessica Chastain’s Maya is more than an audience surrogate; she’s a guide into, and an avatar of, Stygian depths. She first reveals herself to us by pulling off a hood during a break in an interrogation—call it what it is, an assault, a torture session—conducted by Dan, a senior operative and Ph.D who one imagines was eyed by the Agency early on, just as Maya is later revealed to have been recruited in high school. She’s shaken at first, but soon graduates to helpmate and shot-caller, filling pitchers with water that will soon fill lungs to bursting, giving a nod to a goon to beat down a detainee who is not sufficiently forthcoming. (“Fulsome in your replies,” to quote her arch, chilly phrase.) The torture scenes are prolonged, but not staged for prurient effect. There’s an element of sick theater to them that’s awful to witness, as they should be. Dan and Maya work from a script; his recriminations have a blustering tone with echoes of tough-guy movie dialogue, while Maya wears bad wigs and delivers the same lines with minimal affect, like a casting director reading sides during an audition. The “sessions” all end in the same place, though: blank, terrorized stares, the uncontrollable twitches of beaten muscles, a single tear streaming down a scourged cheek. Bigelow never makes the prisoners ciphers, and the actors, especially Reda Kateb as Ammar, are skilled and passionate. When Ammar calls Dan “a garbageman for the corporation,” it’s more than radical rhetoric. It gets to the heart of things quite succinctly.
But Ammar’s a garbageman as well, a cash conduit and stasher of munitions, as Dan is quick to point out. Both things are true, and Zero Dark Thirty is full of warring truths, motivations and veiled narratives. Maya comes off as no less fanatical than the detainees whose interrogation videos she watches and rewatches in near-pornographic detail. She’s an ultra, too, a technoradical with a head full of data points who is herself a data point in a vast organism created for vengeance, submission and order. We admire her pure chops, the tensile focal relentlessness and clear assessment of her new post as “pretty fucked up,” but can’t help scrutinizing her willingness to dive into the muck. Maya has a messianic streak that adrenalizes her long tear through the national security apparatus. She survives the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott and loses her closest friend and a host of colleagues in the infamous Camp Chapman attack and later tells a covert ground op (played by Edgar Ramirez—more of him, please) her conviction that she was “spared” so she could finish the job. And so she does, plowing through the cavils and dodges of her superiors, wheedling and threatening her way to get surveillance teams to track the man she’s certain leads to bin Laden, profanely turning the whole apparatus on its ear and eventually making her case to the highest councils of government and getting them to pull the trigger in much the same way she taps a thug to smack around a suspect.
Zero Dark Thirty’s implacable forward thrust matches Maya’s. Both staging and performance contain precise but numerous expressive gradations. Bigelow’s action sequences, in concert with the excellent cameraman Greig Fraser, are directed and formed instead of covered, and her small scale dialogue-driven scenes avoid monotony through minute variations of camera setups; the spatial good sense from shot-to-shot is a marvel. Your eye never wanders from what she wants you to see, but it’s also the least blunt film, imagewise, that she’s yet made. This lack of foregrounding extends to theme as well. I can’t recall a big, or biggish, budget suspense film so doggedly experiential, so resistant to telling you “what it’s about.” It begins with a sound montage of phone calls from those trapped in the dying World Trade Center, then drops two and one-half hours of pure incident in your lap and practically stares back at you as if to ask, “So – what do you think?” (It’s not coincidental that the punishing metalcore song blasting in Ammar’s abattoir is “Pavlov’s Dogs” by a band named Rorschach.) Bigelow and Boal assume that the audience brings some context and a personal view of a decade-long war and vexing elusiveness of Usama bin Laden into the theater with them and then lay out the methods that brought the latter to his end, leaving the individual to decide if those methods were justified. One can view the lack of signposting and the choice to tell the story wholly within the chosen framework as uncut NatSec hagiography and a validation of vengeance. I don’t see it. This picture’s genesis was as a story about the attempt to capture bin Laden in Tora Bora, a massive and unsuccessful undertaking and the primary reason for the institutional belief that bin Laden was dead, or at the very least not worthy of the risk of another high-profile failure. To make a big-ticket movie about failure takes a peculiar and contrarian mindset, one formed by a worldview that isn’t easily cast aside, the same sensibility as a film like The French Connection, with a similarly obsessive and compromised “hero” of a paramilitary apparatus who ends up chasing a ghost—becoming a ghost. Zero Dark Thirty is still a film about failure: a Melvillian fable of mania, violence and the cost of responding in kind.
Despite their preeminence and power to subsume our senses, film artists stand stubbornly outside the quotidian, insinuating their way into our heads for a brief time, then retreating. They make objects, data points in a cultural narrative that are in no way a substitute for the homework an attentive polis shouldn’t have left for another day. But the really strong stuff (and the potent garbage, too) refracts as well as reflects, their effects shooting off into the world every which way. Boal and Bigelow have been taken to task for giving Zero Dark Thirty a sheen of hard reportage while playing fast and loose with facts, especially the question of whether information about the al-Qaeda courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was obtained in the torture rooms. Their only public comments as of this writing have been terse, boilerplate defenses of their reporting and a piece in the Los Angeles Times that is equal parts declaration of good faith and PR tourniquet. They stand by their work. The sense is they’ve been advised not to be more forthcoming about their methods because of a potential government investigation which would not be necessarily inappropriate; they were allowed close access to a taxpayer-funded agency and any information given them out of turn is certainly subject to scrutiny. Notable and accomplished chroniclers of the American government’s regime of “enhanced interrogation” (that decadent phrase, that parlance of moral defectives) haven’t found it sufficient to rightfully expose its practitioners as the sickest of criminals but also find it necessary to maintain as holy writ that these methods “never work” anyway, a stance which beggars belief as it undercuts a defense of the virtue of forswearing these acts. Mark Boal’s journalistic career was, by most accounts, an honorable one, but the prevailing insinuation is that he was gulled by sources and cut corners. There’s nothing wrong with casting a cold eye on his sourcing, but one might also note that his accusers buttress their arguments by citing investigations (whose findings remain largely classified) conducted by figures with no small culpability in these matters, officials who may themselves have much to hide. Zero Dark Thirty has a few moments of banal heroics, but they are outweighed by scenes both pointed and disquieting: the loaded image of Dan sharing soft-serve with caged monkeys only a few steps away from penned-up prisoners; operatives plotting strategy while TV footage of Barack Obama’s declaration that “America doesn’t torture” looms in the background; and finally the raid on bin Laden’s compound, shot by Bigelow with directness and severity—no martial stings, no heroic angles or worshipful framing—simply men flying through a mountain range where empires come a cropper to an appointment with cold murder to be carried out in pitch blackness.
Late in Zero Dark Thirty, a character in an assessment meeting says, “We all come at this through the filter of our own past experiences.” The experiences of many tell them that Bigelow and Boal are hard propagandists, modern Riefenstahls or, at best, irresponsible naifs. More than a few of their fellow artists hold this view. Last week brought word of a movement afoot in the Hollywood community, a clarion call to boycott this picture. Not calling for a ban, understand, just that you needn’t see it because it’s already been vetted by people with a more finely tuned moral sense than yourself, good citizens who are certainly more upstanding than Bigelow, this gun nut, this sensation peddler, this pretender to a seat at The Big Kids’ Table. One wonders if Martin Sheen suffers through bleak nights, his own zero dark thirties and later, wondering if the expensive hallucinations of Apocalypse Now are, finally, an insult to a decimated people and those tasked to cut them in half up close or rain fire from on high when “necessary.” Or if David Clennon regrets his participation in Star 80, wherein Bob Fosse, making an aesthetic choice informed by ethical, legal and storytelling imperatives, crosscut between Dorothy Stratten’s rape and murder, Hugh Hefner eyeing proofs of Playmate stills through a loupe, and a filmmaker who is Not Peter Bogdanovich editing footage of Stratten (all of which “happened,” though certainly not in that order) leaving the audience to ponder a connection between the Industrial Beautiful Girl Complex and one woman’s aspirations, exploitation and extinction. Perhaps they do. I would suggest that those who take this group’s advice are foregoing an opportunity to contend with a work of uncommon subtlety and integrity and no small measure of moral sense: a chance to bear witness from a far remove, to ponder the actions of men invading a house far from their own homes, in a country that’s not theirs, pumping rounds into already lifeless bodies, stealing a dead man’s Kalashnikov, taking cell snaps, counting coup, all under the removed but unblinking gaze of a person who never fires a weapon, never screams at a child, but watches, on a large screen, the acts she, and others far more powerful than herself, set in motion.