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.
TV MONTH: Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
What Do You Hear? Nothing But The Rain.
by Sarah Malone
Last summer, Salman Rushdie, announcing his intent to write for television, characterized ‘quality’ contemporary TV drama as “comparable to the novel as the best way of communicating ideas and stories.” ‘Quality’ TV drama of course long-predated the mostly cable-based shows—The Wire, Mad Men, The West Wing, The Sopranos—he cited, but I do think that certain elements more standard since the ’00s—plots arcing over multiple episodes or entire seasons; vérité-style camera work; judicious employment of on-the-nose dialogue; willingness to torment and kill off core characters; and an interest in dramatizing pressing real-world political issues—accumulate into a gravity (possibly ponderousness) that feels very different from most earlier dramas, and which with DVD and online delivery is likely to be experienced in a way not anticipated with earlier series. How many of us have fallen for a show watching half a season or more of it at once, the way we read books by flashlight under the covers?
Of all the ‘quality’ contemporary dramas, I can’t picture Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia characters losing their jobs and hunting down the showrunner and lead characters of any other series with the same piquancy as they do for Battlestar Galactica [clip]. There’s the name, for one thing; I’m not sure “Battlestar” ever entirely loses its slightly goofy made-up-ness even as it becomes a kind of secret sign once you know what’s beyond it.
I fell for Battlestar midway through the second season, when then-Commander Adama was in a standoff with the rogue Admiral Cain. The desires, needs, and resentments of major and minor characters collided with density and menace; female characters had interesting, central plotlines; space felt more spatial than in any show I’d seen, and in all but a few movies; and behind it all, though with a Viper wing’s gleam of hope in those particular episodes, loomed the still largely enigmatic menace of the Cylons.
I think I got caught up—twenty-two episodes plus the miniseries—in under a week.
The show was gaining such high and widespread acclaim that my initial sheepishness, recommending it to friends who didn’t usually go for sci-fi—I know, right, ‘Battlestar’? But it’s really good! Mary McDonnell!—soon gave way to a sense that watching it was becoming akin to eating organic or reading Mrs. Dalloway: too fixed in popular opinion as a Good Thing to need recommending, and agreed upon as good not simply because it was enjoyable but because it was good for you.
Partly, it was the right show at the right time for the right audience, offering a fraught catharsis whether your politics leaned toward The West Wing or 24, and rarely summoning that drama-dousing sense of “Look! Important! Learn!!!” ‘Normal’ as its characters had known it—and, except for commonplace space travel, much as we’ve known it—was irretrievably gone. With only what they had along on the few ships to escape the robotic Cylons’ attack, the Colonials (the humans) were doomed to be beleaguered, outgunned and outnumbered. Earth, their destination, offered hope only because it was too distant, possibly mythical, for them to question what would happen if they reached it, particularly if they hadn’t by then eluded the Cylons. The Cylons had the might of a deadly nation and the infiltrating ability of the deadliest terrorists. Early on, when the humanoid Cylons were less individualized and human, and appeared only infrequently, they served as much as anything to generate a pervasive dread against which President Roslin’s swearing in, upon the news that she was the last Cabinet member alive, echoed Lyndon Johnson’s, and queasily evoked the sense of illegitimacy, or of the precariousness of legitimacy, still heavy in the air only a few years after the Florida recount and 9/11.
While the show’s moral poles, at least initially, are clear in the broadest sense, individually things are murkier. The Colonials torture Cylon prisoners, mutiny, put traitors out of airlocks, throw elections, cheat on partners, and generally feel terrible about it. They’re better with practical questions of military competence. But as much as for their successes, they’re cathartic because they fail so believably, so necessarily, despite their best intentions, and for the way their moral and practical failures cascade into new crises.
Midway through season two, Adama tells Starbuck, “It’s not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of surviving.” “I think that’s very wise, sir,” she replies. The exchange comes minutes after the destruction of thousands of Cylons—the Colonials’ first large-scale attack—and in response to a reflection by the Cylon Athena, whom Adama was still keeping shackled despite her repeated, sustained loyalty. It’s a seismic shift nonetheless. His initial invocation to the Colonial fleet was simply to find earth, to survive. In the first episode he ordered the destruction of a civilian ship that was presumed compromised by the Cylons, and told his son that the mark of an adult and an officer, and the burden of command, was to take responsibility for such actions. Make the tough calls; roll the hard six.
For the show’s first season and a half, Adama’s counterweights are President Roslin, the former schoolteacher, and his sometime-estranged son, Lee. But gradually Roslin’s belief in her possibly divinely ordained mission to guide the fleet becomes more ruthless than Adama’s military steeliness, and he becomes more loath to lose more than he’s lost already.
There’s never any question that the fleet will reach some destination, only of when. In his podcasts, showrunner Ron Moore described the decision to wrap up the show after four seasons (a schedule interrupted and cast into doubt by the Hollywood writers’ strike). He was quite open about not plotting out in advance many of what turned out to be central questions—who were the “final five” Cylons, what happened to the fabled thirteenth tribe of humans, what was the significance of the characters’ visions. Mostly, I think that lent the series the “life” Henry James finds in “the accidental and the arbitrary” elements of “large, loose, baggy monsters” such as War and Peace, but I remember, watching seasons three and four, a sense of swaying as if in the back of some vehicle being driven very fast by a driver prone to swerving, and thinking of the old gibe at Star Trek V, what does a starship need with God? Conversely, the Cylons were by the series’ end so thoroughly analyzed that it was a shock when they were lethal as ever.
But viewed retrospectively as a whole, the series has a startlingly novelistic, symmetrical shape: the building of relationships, questions, and tensions in the first two seasons; the characters’ ill-omened, terribly miscalculated intermission; then the long downhill of the last two seasons as ships and morale deteriorate, Cylons emerge as individual personalities, and it becomes evident that the separation desired by humans and Cylons alike is impossible, and that the past, in the form of prophecies and dimly comprehended melodies, will determine the future as much as anything the colonists have yet to find.
For me, that arc, and the uncertain play between destiny and freewill, gives the show a lot of leeway, and Battlestar achieves something mythic and fundamentally resonant, a sustained, simultaneous sense of brevity and expanse. In the finale, even as I questioned whether characters’ decisions would have been suggested or agreed to, I found my eyes damp, my awareness of plot devices far outweighed by where they take the characters.
Throughout, the ship itself is a tangible symbol of the Colonials’ hardiness and precariousness. It’s their savior, and becomes their home, but it’s never safe, and it remains a constant reminder of their diminishing. No Kirk and Spock here, prepping a gleaming ship and never more glad than when leaping toward the stars; no Han Solo never more at home than in the pilot’s seat. The fleet’s goal is to disband. Intermediate planets are barren, and toiling through a desert of space, the Colonials grow steadily more despairing of the solid ground they yearn for. That in the end they find it might seem too deus ex machina, too tidy and too mystical, for a show so scrupulous in its early seasons about military and political protocol. “What are the odds,” Adama mutters, as if to preempt critics. Here again, I’m inclined to the leeway one allows novels. I can skip a page because I’m stuck on how few of the central characters get to enjoy the promised land, on Adama taking Roslin’s hand and sitting beside her cairn describing sunsets from the house he’s building for them. I can’t shake Starbuck’s last, foreknowing expression and the cut to her on Caprica before the fall, downing shots in the heat of the story she thought that she was in, telling Lee Adama that she feared not death but being forgotten. And then the present day, loud and strange after the accustomed past from which only DNA remains.
Sarah Malone writes fiction, and tumbls here.