(So far, this blog has dealt almost exclusively with social policy, but that’s not a requirement. Accordingly--and since I don’t have anything else ready to go--I thought I’d post an unpublished 2012 review of a much misunderstood film.)
Zero Dark Thirty, a semi-factual account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, has provoked a small controversy. There are graphic depictions of CIA torture of suspected terrorists that yield nuggets of information leading to Bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout. No one denies that such torture went on, but Senators Diane Feinstein and John McCain, and numerous others, have asserted that the torture did not elicit any useful information. They say that the movie sanctions torture as a valuable aid in the war on terror.
Like most critics and supporters of Zero Dark Thirty, I have no idea whether torture did or could yield useful information. Too many people have a stake in that debate, and too much information is classified, to trust any particular answer. In any case, the debate over the efficacy of torture seems largely irrelevant to the movie.
Zero Dark Thirty is about an obsession. It opens with a black screen and actual recorded phone messages from people trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11. It then follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst, through incidents in the near decade-long hunt for Bin Laden. Maya has no social life, and no other CIA mission than her all-consuming hunt for Bin Laden. (She briefly becomes friendly with a similarly-obsessed CIA agent who is killed, along with other CIA operatives, by a Taliban suicide bomber in Afghanistan.)
Maya’s obsession is the national obsession. 9/11 was a victory for Bin Laden, not because of the body count or the physical destruction, but because it achieved the main goal of terrorism: It robbed us of our reason. From the tsa follies to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it led us to numerous dead-end policies and self-inflicted wounds. For the movie-makers, torture was one of those dead-end policies. It is depicted graphically so that it will (one hopes) be repellent, but for the purposes of the film it has to yield some useful information because otherwise there would be no reason to show it.
The problem with the obsessive focus on Bin Laden is summed up by the CIA station chief in Pakistan, who tells Maya that Bin Laden is a spent force—there has not been a successful Al Quaeda attack in the U.S. since 9/11—and that the resources devoted to the hunt could be better used fighting actual threats. Maya faces him down by arguing that he can’t be seen as the man who let Bin Laden get away—that is, that he stood in the way of our national obsession.
Later at a meeting as others argue about the probability that Bin Laden is in the Abbatobad compound, Maya blurts out that she is certain that Bin Laden is there, and berates the others for being “uncomfortable” with certainty. Some in the audience may see this as a brave statement of conviction, but can there be any doubt that no reasonable person could have been that certain?
The film ends with the Navy SEALs raid on Bin Laden’s compound. The main defense is a series of stout metal doors, which the SEALs force with explosive charges. There are only three men in the building, all of whom are quickly gunned down. As they lie motionless on the ground, the SEALs shoot them several times to make sure they are dead.
Since everyone knows how the story ends, there can’t be the usual buildup of suspense, but remarkably (and I think deliberately) Bigelow doesn’t show Bin Laden alive for more than perhaps a second, and there is no dramatic buildup to what is ostensibly the whole point of the mission and the extraordinary effort that preceded it. You only become aware that this particular corpse is Bin Laden when a SEAL radios a laconic “Possible jackpot” message. The focus of the raid scene is on the SEALs’ ruthless efficiency; the most dramatic incident is the deliberate destruction of a SEAL helicopter that crash-landed in the compound.
The minimal attention to Bin Laden in the raid is consistent with the rest of the film. Bin Laden is not portrayed as a villain, or indeed portrayed at all. He is simply the semi-abstract object of a man-hunt, and when he is killed there is no feeling of victory, simply of the successful end of a task. In a coda, after the raid Maya boards a military transport plane. She is the only passenger, and the pilot says that he will take her anywhere she wants to go. It’s clear that she has no idea where that could be.
Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for numerous awards. One of its competitors was Argo, another semi-factual movie about our relations with the Islamic world. In Argo a CIA operative creates a phony movie project as cover to spirit some American Embassy employees out of Iran in the early days after the fall of the Shah. It’s an enjoyable feel-good story: American ingenuity springs the trapped employees, with an (invented) hair-breadth escape at the Tehran airport. Predictably, Argo won the Oscar for best picture.
Two people can read a newspaper, accept all the reported facts, and yet reach quite different conclusions as to what it all means. So it’s not surprising that people can read Zero Dark Thirty as a triumphalist work on the order of Argo: Dedicated CIA analyst, not afraid to use extra-legal methods, tracks down mass-murderer through hard work and force of moral certainty. Lots of movies work that way, and it’s not surprising if viewers slot Zero Dark Thirty into that mold.
But it doesn’t seem to be what the writer, Mark Boal, and director, Kathryn Bigelow, intended. The title tells it all: Zero dark thirty is military slang for the hours between midnight and dawn, and could refer to the hours of the raid. But thirty (written “-30-“) is the traditional newspaper reporter’s end for a story. The implication is that this story ends with nothing, in a moral darkness.