Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
"You can help yourself by being truthful." "Partial information will be treated as a lie." The CIA interrogators in the stunning new film Zero Dark Thirty keep coming back to these refrains as they do some appalling things to detainees in their custody. At times, they resemble psychotic metaphysicians on a quest for knowledge, and the fascinating thing about the latest from director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) is that while it's chiefly about the CIA's decade-long search for Osama Bin Laden, it's also about that more abstract quest — it combines the adrenaline spikes of an espionage thriller with some heady art-house philosophy.
We start with only a title card — "September 11, 2001" — and a horrifying audio montage of what appear to be real emergency calls from victims that day. Cut to a "black site" in Pakistan two years later, where a detainee strung up to the ceiling is questioned by disturbingly frat-bro-esque Dan (Jason Clarke) about his ties to a Bin Laden associate. When he refuses to talk, he's waterboarded, dragged around in a dog collar, and confined in a child-sized cabinet — all of which we see in gruesome, matter-of-fact detail along with the fresh-from-Washington operative Maya (an excellent Jessica Chastain) flinching in the corner.
These torture scenes are brief but they raise questions that hang over the film, haunting its characters. Did that first evil justify the second? Will finding Bin Laden absolve us of this stain on our national soul? Those questions and others that pile up are never answered by the film or Maya (who is based on a real-life operative). But then there's a lot that's conspicuously absent in Maya's quest as depicted by Bigelow (at the risk of channeling Lisa Simpson — you have to listen to the notes she's not playing.)
Viewers are flooded with data during Maya's search for Bin Laden's courier, which finds her poring over surveillance tapes and wiretaps, setting up sting operations in Pakistan, squabbling with her superiors for mission support, and eventually overseeing that famous nighttime raid in Abbottabad. But it's a strikingly narrow search for that one man, with larger context — about Al-Qaeda and their motivations, about the broader political situation, about those moral questions — almost entirely absent.
Bigelow did something similar in The Hurt Locker — there, she was focused on bomb disposal experts in Iraq doing their duty under pressure, and there are no geopolitical analysts in a foxhole. But now the movie is about the geopolitical analysts, and the alarming implication is that they weren't thinking much about these questions either. There's a continual suggestion that these CIA operatives, who casually order drone strikes and detainee abuse, were blinkered and operating with "partial information." "We don't know what we don't know," says Dan at a briefing, which initially seems like a gag line but takes on disturbing dimensions.
But Maya is never less than certain, which is her tragedy. Chastain, who was the embodiment of warmth and compassion in The Help and The Tree of Life, is here "a killer" — all steely demeanor and straining neck tendons. And she emerges as the perfect agent for this war on terror: highly skilled, with a single-minded, almost mystical zeal ("I believe I was spared so I could finish this job," she says at one point) and a void where any sense of conventional humanity might be. (Her domineering style doesn't endear her to her colleagues.) She seems to lack any meaningful human connection.
Maya gets the job done, however, and it's clear that Bigelow admires her professionalism. And Bigelow's own professionalism is on dazzling display here. Bigelow's long been regarded as one of the best action directors working because she doesn't care solely about whiz-bang sensation in her action scenes (though there's plenty). She addresses tactics and strategy. Bigelow is phenomenal at mapping out a space, making sure you understand the positions and movements of the people involved, and amping up tension by surgically directing your eye to salient details — a military boot peeking out from under a burqa, a hand tucked suspiciously in a jacket.
The action scenes aren't as virtuosic as in The Hurt Locker, but they mean more. A set piece in Afghanistan, upon reflection, is an illustration of the dire consequences of breaking rules and procedures because of the need for urgent information — certainly a relevant idea. And then there's the climactic Abbottabad raid, which is remarkable not just for how well-crafted and suspenseful it is, but also for how it tweaks audience expectations. There have been arguments that Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture or CIA propaganda, because in the film a key detail is gleaned from a brutal interrogation. But anyone who would call this propaganda should pay attention to the tone of this final segment — the lingering on civilian victims, the banal process of dealing with the corpse, the lack of any sense of triumph. "I know certainty freaks you guys out," says Maya to the top brass doubtful about undertaking the raid. But in the final shot of the film, we see her certainty finally give way to a terrible, wrenching doubt.
It does also seem clear that the film also argues that torture is sickening, corrosive for everyone involved, and an unnecessary CIA crutch, since every detail found through torture is also found through another source, without the moral cost. In an important scene late in the film, a CIA official complains that without torture he has no way of getting the information he needs. He's told to find a way — and he does.