Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have taken the true story behind the manhunt for Osama bin Laden to craft an excellent police procedural. Zero Dark Thirty follows the frequently frustrated effects of a CIA officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who has to contend with false leads, dead-ends, personal attacks, the death of colleagues and a fundamental ideological shift in the Whitehouse, to create a basic narrative drive that provides a more satisfying experience than Bigelow and Boal’s previous film, the episodic The Hurt Locker (2008). When Zero Dark Thirty delivers its thrilling climax to depict the fateful operation that resulted in bin Laden’s death, Bigelow delivers an astonishing sequence of suspense/action cinema. With cinematographer Greig Fraser, Bigelow provides the audience with an almost first person perspective of the US Navy SEALs as they go about their deadly mission. The screen appears to be in complete darkness, yet just enough light is filtered into the camera so that viewers can make-out what is going on during the methodical high-stakes mission. It is exhilarating cinema that makes you want to forget all the questionable issues of representation that have come before it.
As an allegedly authentic account of events that is supposedly free from political motivation, Zero Dark Thirty sets itself up as being immune from criticism. However, no film exists in a political or cultural vacuum and by adopting the faux-cinema vérité style that is currently associated with cinematic realism, Bigelow’s film should be especially held up for scrutiny for the way it portrays recent sensitive subject matter that influences public debate over important issues. Depiction may not equate to endorsement, but particular types of representation do. And the big question with Zero Dark Thirty is how does it represent the alleged benefits of torture?
For a start Zero Dark Thirty does not soften or conceal the barbarity of torture. Nor does it deny that it was used by the US under the double-speak terminology of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and as Alex Gibney demonstrated in his 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, never officially sanctioned but ambiguously endorsed to prevent anybody too important ever being held accountable. In this regard, Zero Dark Thirty is commendable for presenting torture as inhumane, soul-destroying for the perpetrators and fatal in terms of losing significant moral ground for the US. The acts Bigelow depicts reflect what is described in Taxi to the Dark Side and dramatised in Michael Winterbottom’s powerful 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. The big question is if like those films does Zero Dark Thirty adhere to the current understanding and evidence that torture is ineffective or does it perpetuate the idea that torture is a necessary evil required to yield results?
It is a murky issue and there are many aspects to suggest the film is not endorsing torture as useful. The change of government during the period that ended the detainee project is shown to annoy many of the CIA agents. However, there is also a scene where a government official speaks about the importance of good intelligence and that the previous false intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq proved how disastrous it is to rely on information taken from detainees under duress. During the first half of the film where the investigation is centred on the intelligence-gathering from tortured detainees, the investigation gets nowhere and there are terrible setbacks. Later when the detainee program has ended and the manhunt has to rely on investigative work, good results occur. Towards the end of the process Maya is told that her desire to find bin Laden has become more a personal fixation wrapped up in revenge rather than a homeland security priority, putting the eventual outcomes into jingoist-free context.
The main question revolves around a key piece of information about one of bin Laden’s couriers. This information is shown in the film to be pivotal to finding bin Laden and it is discovered during the scenes in the film where the CIA is using torture. The waters are muddied by the fact that the information is represented as being given by detainees when they are being treated compassionately, suggesting that the film is showing the inadequacies of torture after all. However, the compassion is portrayed as only being effective for having been applied after the torture has occurred. One man speaks of having experienced torture already so rather than go through that again, willingly gives up the information when asked. Before Maya and her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) get the information from another man, they speak about how to best exploit his loss of short-term memory and general disorientation due to the sleep-deprivation and long-term isolation that they have subjected him to.
While Zero Dark Thirty represents the acts of torture as inhumane and probably unnecessary since most of the positive results occur without the detainee program, it nevertheless ultimately endorses them by linking the information of the courier gained under torture as crucial to discovering where bin Laden was hiding. While the film should be commended for depicting the harsh reality that the ‘good guys’ stooped to the level of the ‘bad guys’ it is worrying that it seems to ultimately suggest the means justified the ends. Furthermore, it makes the audience complicit in the acts, encouraging us to condemn them in our minds while relishing them in our heart. The film opens with a torture scene right after an emotive sound montage of people making desperate emergency calls from within the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. A shot of an exploding bus in the London attacks on 7 July 2005 cuts to Dan playfully feeding an ice cream to his pet monkeys. The edit both humanises his actions as a torturer and gives them a sense of importance and urgency. If torture had been proven to yield results in locating bin Laden, or if it can be proven to be effective at all, then Zero Dark Thirty could be excused for representing the cold hard truth. But this is currently not the case.
As an important sidenote, it is also worth evaluating how Bigelow presents Maya, who is played brilliantly by Chastain. Similar to Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1989), Zero Dark Thirty has as a protagonist an authoritative woman in a mostly male environment. For the most part, Bigelow avoids references to Maya’s gender with a significant exception at the end when in the same sentence she is referred to as ‘the agency expert’ and ‘the girl’; very effectively suggesting that no matter how much professional recognition she will achieve, there are some who will define her for being other than a man. A great earlier scene undermines all regressive expectations regarding female characters when the question of Maya having an affair with Dan is raised and she immediately dismisses the idea as ludicrous since they are professionals working together. It is odd that Bigelow then chooses Maya to be initially antagonistic with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), the only other female character on her team, but otherwise Maya is a given much of the narrative privileges that male characters usually receive in terms of remaining a sympathetic and strong character despite the growing character flaws as she increasingly loses her humanity and perspective.
Where Zero Dark Thirty ultimately leaves the discerning, political-aware cinema viewer is something of a quandary. One easy way out is to simply condemn the whole film for making entertainment out of recent events that lead to the death of a person, albeit somebody whom very few people will shed any tears for. But that would mean condemning nearly every war film or any film that depicts tragic historical events. Zero Dark Thirty is impressive filmmaking that is gripping from start to finish. On purely filmic terms it deserves celebrating. But how this filmmaking presents issues concerned with events and issues that still influence foreign policy all over the world needs to be debated rigorously. And perhaps only then and after an extended period of time will we be able to decide if Zero Dark Thirty is closer in spirit to The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) or Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, Leni Riefenstahl, 1935).