Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
by Sarah Malone
Zero Dark Thirty, the title, has the cadence and slightly unwieldy precision of military lingo: code, but only cryptic until you’re in the know. It’s meant to be readily recalled and quickly repeated and understood. The tweak from the military “oh” to “zero,” with its sharper sound and richer associations—Ground Zero, Zero Hour, Zero Day, countdown to liftoff or detonation—is characteristic of the film’s method and conundrum. It wants to be authoritative (at two hours and thirty-seven minutes, it had better be). It claims authority or merit beyond drama. “Based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” announces the onscreen text at the beginning, referring presumably to accounts the audience doesn’t have access to, possibly events the audience doesn’t even know of. But far from reportage, the film is an expressionistic odyssey, as focused on a single emotional register as Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent it portrays, is on Osama bin Laden.
From the film’s first minutes of 9/11 phone calls over black, its selective vision and tight focus are palpable. Few historical films so foreground their omissions. For much of the film’s first half, Maya is overshadowed by her co-worker, Dan (Jason Clarke), who takes the lead in brutal interrogations of al Qaeda suspects (no prisoners in Zero Dark Thirty are innocent). Opinion about torture was by no means uniform in the security establishment in those years, and indeed by two-thirds of the way through the film, the techniques shown early on are no longer permitted, much to the chagrin of some agency higher-ups. But while Maya is visibly affected by the first interrogation she’s present for, and Dan clearly wearies of his duties, neither he nor any other on-screen characters question, in so many words, whether they’re going about things the right—or even most useful—way (he does not have outstanding success in extracting information). No FBI agents are present at CIA black sites to say, as agents did, that they can’t be party to the CIA’s actions. The debate is something in Washington—background exposition, never on-screen conflict. (Obama, in his only appearance in the movie, not yet president, and small and earnest in a TV monitor, condemns torture.) It’s simply not part of Zero Dark Thirty’s story, except as a dramatic constraint that limits characters’ options.
I suspect that much of the intensity of the outrage at director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal arises from a sense that they’ve only told part of the story, that such a narrow focus necessarily leaves an erroneous impression, even if you know better. More troubling are misrepresentations I can only conclude are intended for dramatic effect. As Steve Coll details at length in The New York Review of Books, the film conflates CIA techniques with abuses at Abu Ghraib, such as putting prisoners in dog collars. It also suggests that under Obama the CIA has lost all the leeway it was granted under Bush. Bigelow and Boal have variously responded to criticism by asserting art’s right and need to portray without censorship, the veracity of their ‘reporting’, and the value of having sparked a debate over methods of fighting terrorism. But debate should be grounded in accurate details. “The movie got it wrong” versus “It’s just a movie” is less a start to debate than a stop.
The disputed torture scenes presumably are meant to show intensifying pressure on the prisoner with whom the film spends the most time. But as drama, they fall short. Dan crosses over to the Dark Side the first time he’s willing to waterboard. In confining the prisoner to a box smaller than a coffin and making him wear a dog collar, Dan does not change. So why introduce blatant inaccuracies?
Maybe Bigelow and Boal felt the methods they lifted from Abu Ghraib were needed to keep the film zero dark. But rigorous adherence to the widely known, generally acknowledged catalog of CIA techniques would have only enhanced the torture scenes’ brutal, static repetition. The scenes’ potency is in their erasure of motive, and, horribly, their tedium, the refusal to give the audience the usual comfort of character.
Torturers in film and television more often have personal motivations. Admiral Cain in Battlestar Galactica tortures her former lover. Ralph Fiennes’ concentration camp commandant in Schindler’s List takes offense and rages. But we scarcely know Dan. He has rote lines that he tires of repeating. He is as willing to sit for a meal with a prisoner as to waterboard him, if it gets the job done. His evil is banal.
Only late does he come alive, affectionately feeding ice cream to his pet monkeys, and mourning them after airbase guards kill them. It’s the kind of scene we know how to process. They’re why the Bourne movies pause in coffee shops and Admiral Cain drinks whiskey with Starbuck. When characters talk without an immediate need, what they care about, what drives them, leaks through. But Zero Dark Thirty has few such moments.
Maya’s first exchange with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), an agent who becomes her only apparent friend other than Dan, is a disagreement in a meeting. It succinctly establishes Jessica’s simultaneously supportive, undermining, and controlling solicitousness, and Maya’s scorn, intelligence, and need to impress. There are no similar scenes until we see Dan with his monkeys. The parched humanity of Zero Dark Thirty’s characters, the filmmakers’ refusal to hit customary notes, creates a sense of a suffocating present enveloping both us and the characters. The film isn’t interested in their past or futures, and so, as far as we know, the characters aren’t interested, or don’t have time to be. They don’t or can’t develop. They’re at permanent action stations, holding their breath for the duration of a sprint that’s turned into a marathon, the perpetual shock of an unrelenting now.
People become what they do. Lingo, assumptions, values, concerns, skills—“tradecraft,” as Zero Dark Thirty’s CIA operatives say—go from things that must be learned in order to function in a job, a career, to ways of talking and thinking, ways brains are structured. Zero Dark Thirty feels aimed too exclusively at Americans—The Guardian picks apart some of its misrepresentations and errors, such as Pakistanis speaking Arabic instead of Urdu—but it is a sobering mirror, in no way celebratory.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so viscerally aware of the terrible magnitude of the Great Powers as watching the stealth helicopters weave through the mountains to Abbottabad. The depiction of the raid felt like a corrective to the cartoonish, cacophonous violence of the trailers before the film, and even to sequences like the storming of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan, in which we have a character to root for. The methodical SEALS, taking the compound, are visually nearly interchangeable in the night vision green, their goggles and heavy gear.
They turn out to have overwhelming force, but they still have little margin for error, and little time. The film makes it clear without saying so that they came to kill, not capture. They shoot their way upstairs, single shots and quick bursts, in the next breath telling the household’s children to hush, that everything’s OK. Leaving the theatre, I heard a teenage boy complain, “They didn’t even show his [bin Laden’s] face.” The boy couldn’t have been more than six or seven on 9/11. I remembered being on Twitter as word of the Abbottabad raid broke, and picturing what I read in the days after, and I wondered how anyone could feel that Bigelow’s sequence was insufficient.
When bin Laden was killed, Bigelow and Boal abandoned a script they’d been planning about the failed hunt. In that project, and in Zero Dark Thirty’s final scene, and in the end of The Hurt Locker, they show an affinity for dogged pursuit by doomed pursuers. That idea, and the questions that follow in context of the ‘War on Terror,’ are as relevant in the era of drone strikes as in the Bush years. How do we ‘win’? What are we willing to accept, to become, in order to do so? Some of Zero Dark Thirty’s errors—giving the SEAL team a German shepherd instead of a Belgian Malinois—are essentially trivial. But its liberties in depicting torture suggest that Bigelow and Boal’s interest is as much aesthetic as moral, that they found a topic to suit their tastes.
Yes, it’s a movie. But it’s a story belonging to many people.
Sarah Malone's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. She tumbls here.
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