Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a terrific, engrossing how-it-might-have-gone-down contemporary drama, and maybe that should be the end of the review, because beyond that, it’s tough to tell. The bulk of the film narrates the intelligence search for Osama bin Laden, focusing in particular on Maya, a young female officer (Jessica Chastain) who obsesses on a specific possibility, of finding a man who might be a courier for OBL, and thus might lead them to him; the final half hour dramatizes the assault on his compound in Abbottabad. I was a bit puzzled by the extent of the praise for Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which won her an Oscar, but it’s much easier to see what people are responding to here – it’s a state of the art, eye-on-the-ball, cinema-as-battlefield achievement.
But Bigelow wasn’t nominated for best director this time (although the film itself is up for best picture) and some speculated it might reflect “Hollywood’s” (and Washington’s) discomfort with the film’s open-eyed depiction (or as some read it, condoning) of torture. Even Chastain has expressed some ambivalence on the issue: “I had trouble sleeping to be honest…I had a lot of anxiety about whether we were telling the right story.” In interview after interview, Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal insist on characterizing themselves as even-handed reporters, pragmatically taking what decisions were necessary to condense the story into two and a half hours (Chastain’s character for instance, although closely based on a real person, also serves as a composite for the efforts of many others), but beyond that just sticking to the facts. Bigelow says her aim was "to be faithful to the research, to not have an agenda, to hope that people go to see the movie and judge for themselves". Boal expands as follows: “The film was a political chew toy before I even wrote a word, and I think that will unfortunately continue and people will bring what they want to see. Our intention was to show the complexity of this debate which is fairly complicated and hopefully have people judge for themselves, but there does appear to be a mis-characterization on that front.” One might argue that his “show the complexity of this debate” contradicts Bigelow’s “not have an agenda,” but anyway, they’re consistent on the “judge for themselves” talking point.
But it’s entirely disingenuous of course, because like any film, Zero Dark Thirty reflects thousands of conscious decisions on what to include and exclude, and how, all of which necessarily reflect instincts which can’t be entirely dispassionate. To provide an example, the film early on includes a brief recreation of the 2005 London bombings, but why? It’s not necessary to the central story being told, other than that to emphasize that the terror threat was ongoing, but that’s not a point of dispute in the context of the film; even if it was, we could have been told about it, or it might have been evoked solely through archive footage. I assume Bigelow made this choice (and several others like it) partly to add variation to what might otherwise be a rather dour, small-scale narrative, but whether I’m right or wrong, it’s a choice, and one that can only boost our investment in the film as a dramatic construct (and our sense of the propriety of the effort).
Depictions of torture
More broadly, the film spends little time on the broader wisdom of America’s post 9/11 decisions, such as its disastrous choice (and it was a choice) to cast its response as a broad-based “war on terror” rather than as, say, a pursuit of a specific group of international criminals. The Iraqi WMD debacle is mentioned briefly, but more for the practicality of how it affects the intelligence environment, and reduces institutional appetite for risk, than for the rights and wrongs of the thing itself. The suggestion, raised at one point, of downplaying the search for bin Laden in favour of concentrating on domestic threats is treated as pure cowardice. I don’t think the film even mentions George W Bush, although I might be forgetting something. All of this, again, represents a conscious choice. One could easily imagine an alternative approach, along the lines of what Oliver Stone might have been drawn to in his heyday, which would have emphasized paranoia and chaos rather than honed professionalism.
The film’s depictions of torture are among its most cinematically dazzling – in the film’s first extended sequence, Bigelow brilliantly (in the sense of demonstrating her mastery of cinematic structure) traps us in a triangle of looks: the prisoner’s raw suffering, the practiced moves of his interrogator, the newly-arrived Maya’s clear ambivalence. Again, when Bigelow insists that “if it had not been part of that history, it would not have been in the movie,” she side-steps her choice to make it one of the movie’s dramatic highlights. Now, of course, this might be a deliberate strategy too, pushing us to recognize the ambivalence of our response, how it possibly even verges on pleasure, and therefore our complicity in the flag-waving political consensus that supported all this (before the winds turned): in this respect, the film might be allied to how Tarantino’s Django Unchained, as I wrote last week, perhaps toys with our responses to its depiction of slavery. But if this is Bigelow’s intention, it’s hard to glean either from the film itself or from her comments about it. (As for the effectiveness of torture itself, the film depicts it as yielding a key lead, but also clearly emphasizes that it’s not the only source for that).
What do we do now?
The film’s final image, of Maya’s face after it’s all over, reminded me of the famous ending of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, where Robert Redford’s character wins his long-shot political race and asks his advisor “What do we do now?” The immediate goal is filled, at huge human and financial cost, but who knows what it amounts to in the greater scheme of things, and Bigelow allows us to sense the horrible apprehension that it may not amount to that much at all. Supposedly, the real-life Maya suffered some career reversals, being denied a promotion and damaging her standing with a misjudged “reply all” email, and for the real America, I’m not sure it’s been anything but reversals. There’s no climactic flag-waving in the film, no cheering crowds in the streets – this part of the history at least, Bigelow feels secure in omitting.
As you can see then, the film – at the same time that it’s just plain exciting - is superbly thought-provoking, but it’s primarily thought-provoking about the nature of Kathryn Bigelow’s artistic decisions. And while it wouldn’t be unrewarding to muse further about the ethics of depicting torture with anything other than painstaking exactitude, we can’t meaningfully do that unless we’re also up for questioning the broader ethics of applying mainstream cinema conventions to events that continue to define our collective fate.