Zero Dark Thirty: Its Moral Ambiguity Is What Makes It Great

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 14 2012 12:21 AM

Zero Dark Thirty

A vital, disturbing, and necessary film.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Courtesy Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, will arrive in theaters next week already toting a hefty burden of ideological and emotional baggage. Political commentators—many of whom haven’t yet seen the movie—have criticized the film for its representation of torture, which, they argue, is shown to have played a larger role in the bin Laden manhunt than it in fact did. (I’ll get to the question of the movie’s treatment of torture further on; Slate’s Emily Bazelon engages it at length here.) Film critics, in turn, have risen up in passionate defense of Zero Dark Thirty, lavishing it with critics’ group awards and placing it at the top of year-end lists.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

But even before the flurry of press coverage preceding the film’s release, Zero Dark Thirty felt important, a movie that, love it or not, was going to matter to American audiences. Kathryn Bigelow has become a kind of feminist folk hero since her best director/best picture Oscar win for The Hurt Locker in 2008, and her muscular directorial style seemed ideally suited to this inherently thrilling subject matter. Who didn’t spend the days after the raid in Abbottabad in May of 2011 wanting to know every detail of what went on in that pitch-dark compound? President Obama’s out-of-the-blue primetime press conference to announce the success—indeed the very existence—of the mission to kill bin Laden was one of those rare moments when myth seems to intersect with the banal unfolding of everyday life. In a post-9/11 world of unwinnable wars and fraudulent “Mission Accomplished” banners, here was an incontrovertible and somber truth: The enemy—only one of many, but a singularly important and symbolic one—had been vanquished.

The last half-hour or so of Zero Dark Thirty re-creates the events of that night at the compound with heart-stopping efficiency and, if the reporting of journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal is to be taken at its word, accuracy. In its final stretch, Zero Dark Thirty resembles The Hurt Locker: a taut, hyper-realistic action thriller about a group of men exercising extreme skill in an impossibly stressful situation. But our knowledge that the elusive, barely glimpsed man on the top floor of the compound (and, eventually, in the body bag) is the mastermind of 9/11 gives this bravura sequence an especially powerful emotional hook. Even if every detail in it is factually true, the film’s re-creation of the Abbottabad raid functions for the audience as a collective revenge fantasy.

With the exception of this last sequence (which could easily be excised from the movie and shown as a freestanding re-enactment of the raid), Zero Dark Thirty is neither revenge fantasy nor action thriller. It’s a bureaucratic procedural, albeit an unusually tense and incident-filled one. The movie opens with a punch-to-the-gut audio montage. Over a black screen bearing the date Sept. 11, 2001, we hear overlapping snippets from real emergency calls placed on that day: the shaky voices of frightened people in the last moments of their lives. Immediately afterward, Bigelow leaps ahead to 2004, eliding the beginning of two wars and the early years of the bin Laden manhunt.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent, has just showed up for her first day of work at a “black site” in Pakistan. Maya’s first day on the job is spent observing while a fellow agent, the burly, bearded, disconcertingly laid-back Dan (Jason Clarke), uses enhanced interrogation techniques to subdue a recalcitrant prisoner named Ammar (Reda Kateb). We’re talking very enhanced, including waterboarding, extreme stress positions, and, in a later scene, sexual humiliation and confinement in a small box. Watching these horrific acts unfold, Maya tenses up and glances away, expressing—we think—our own disquiet at Dan’s methods. But when the detainee, left alone with her for a moment, begs her for help, her reply is icy: “You can help yourself by being truthful.”

For the next two hours and 40 minutes (believe me, they fly by), we rarely leave Maya’s side for a minute, yet we never really come to understand her as a character. Other than a borderline-fanatical dedication to the task of locating and killing bin Laden, this terse, unsmiling woman has few discernible characteristics and no family history or romantic connections that we know of. We scarcely even get to see the inside of Maya’s apartment in Islamabad, where she’s stationed at the U.S. Embassy. This is a movie whose drama takes place largely in boardrooms and in front of file cabinets, as the monomaniacal Maya struggles to convince her intransigent higher-ups (including Kyle Chandler as her dismissive boss, Mark Strong as his dismissive boss, and James Gandolfini as the gruffly avuncular head of the CIA) of the importance of remaining focused on bin Laden.

It’s only at the very beginning and the very end that Zero Dark Thirty functions (brilliantly) as a ripped-from-the-headlines political thriller. Much of the rest of the time, it’s a workplace drama about a woman so good at her job that most of her colleagues think she’s crazy. (One of the few exceptions is also a woman: Jennifer Ehle shines in a small role as a fellow agent who sets up an ill-fated sting operation with an al-Qaida informant.)

Eventually, Ammar gives up the name of a man reputed to be Osama’s courier. (Significantly, he offers the information as the result of a bluff of Maya’s devising, though it’s a gambit whose efficacy relies on the disorientation Ammar feels as a result of his torture.) From there, it’s only a matter of time—and persistence and deductive reasoning and screaming matches with Kyle Chandler and his superiors—until the courier is tracked to bin Laden’s compound and the plan for the assault is put in place.

That virtuosic raid sequence, much of it filmed in the sickly greenish light of the soldiers’ night-vision goggles, is the movie’s cinematic crown jewel, a nerve-fraying masterpiece of real-time suspense—but it’s also completely detached from the main narrative of the film. The Navy Seals who participate in the operation show up so late and are sketched so hastily, we never even learn their names. This was no doubt a deliberate choice on Bigelow and Boal’s part, an attempt to honor the soldiers’ actions as a unit rather than focusing on their individual personalities. But the effect is that the Seals come off as faceless defenders of the homeland. We have no idea who they are or how they feel about the grim task they’ve been assigned to carry out—which includes the point-blank shooting of a woman and the terrorizing of a houseful of children.

Wrestling with the question of how torture is handled in this film, I couldn’t stop flashing back to Jack Nicholson’s indelible diatribe at the end of the otherwise forgettable 1992 court-martial drama A Few Good Men: “You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” (The wall in question was one around the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, a place that, in that more innocent time, signified a last bulwark in the Cold War rather than a sordid holding pen for indefinitely detained terror suspects.)

By thrusting the sometimes unsavory practices of the CIA agents who hunted down bin Laden under our noses, is Bigelow attempting to align herself with the belligerent bluster of Nicholson’s embattled Col. Jessup? Zero Dark Thirty, as single-minded and emotionally remote as its heroine, plays its cards so close to its vest that it’s impossible to tell. But this is a vital, disturbing, and necessary film precisely because it wades straight into the swamp of our national trauma about the war on terror and our prosecution of it, and no one—either on the screen or seated in front of it—comes out clean.

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