I was curious about Zero Dark Thirty as soon as I heard about it. Who isn’t curious about the sequence of events that brought down Osama bin Laden? As soon as the the film came out, two things happened: it was immediately short-listed as a potential Oscar-winner and vilified as an apology for torture.
The latter charge gave me pause. I’m not one of those who believes torture is justifiable. In fact, when my short story about abuses at Guantanamo Bay won a fiction prize, I donated the $500 to Human Rights Watch. If torture worked, it would certainly be a moral gray area, but our own FBI (not to mention the history of organizations like the Spanish Inquisition) says it does not.
However, I’m also not one to condemn a movie I’ve not seen, so I bought my ticket and sat down in the theater. Two and a half hours later, I walked out impressed. Kathryn Bigelow has made what appears to be a very even-handed movie.
It’s not a perfect film. It annoyingly follows the standard Hollywood trope of the lone outsider working against all odds to save the day. Fortunately, there’s no gravelly voice intoning “but one man…” at least partly because Jessica Chastain portrays the female heroine at the heart of the story. It also elides what must have been considerable planning and training for the mission itself, though that is more a result of telling the tale as one of espionage and tradecraft rather than an action film.
Chastain’s performance is interesting because she manages be both the insider and driving force, and the outsider and audience surrogate as well. As an insider, her character Maya is the one pushing for the necessary resources, following the five-year-old leads, making things happen. But she doesn’t participate in the raid, she watches intel on a computer monitor, and lives the lonely life of someone who only knows one job.
At least one critic has called ZDT the CIA’s own Top Gun, a claim I find completely ridiculous. There’s none of the feel-good machismo or sexualization of of weaponry that Top Gun and that type of movie celebrate. As for those who those who feel ZDT justifies torture, I can understand where they’re coming from (especially the ones who’ve actually been tortured), but I disagree.
The key to my position is context. The film makes clear that torture was standard operating procedure during the Bush years (and implies that was no longer so once Obama came to office). Some of the people who were abused provided information. What the firm does not say, is that torture lead to the capture of bin Laden. In fact, the methods that led to the raid on Abbottabad were dogged intelligence work, manual surveillance, bribery, and a little good luck. The prisoner who is shown being tortured in the film provides a key piece of information not when he is reduced to a bloody pulp, but when he is psychologically undefended. Because he’s in captivity, Maya is able to feed him disinformation and he believes he is being rewarded for his assistance.
So why is torture shown at all? I believe because Bigelow wants to show us the cost of all of this. The cost to those who where abused, the cost to the US as a nation for doing it, the cost to the individuals who are doing it. It is shown but not glorified. Even when the helicopters return from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan bearing his dead body, there are no whoops and cheers or end-zone body slams. These are professionals who’ve done a job, and have more work to do.
The raid itself, which is arguably the most “militaristic” part of the film is more eerie than anything. The soldiers in their night-vision gear resemble sci-fi aliens as much as humans, and could be coming after us rather than working for us. The tense floor by floor search of the compound is filmed mostly in infrared, and as a viewer you’re aware that every bullet spent is not some exercise in a James Bond-ian ballet of stylized violence but corresponds to actual bullets that ripped through real human bodies that night.
Ultimately, when you watch the final scene of the movie, it’s clear that Bigelow is not making a piece of propaganda. This film is not pro-war or anti-war, it is a documentation (albeit fictionalized) of what we have done, and it’s worth seeing.