Warning: Some mild spoilers ahead (but nothing specific)
I saw the brilliant Zero Dark Thirty two weeks ago, and I still think it about it daily. Sure, this might be a reflection of my own obsessive tendencies, but I think it’s the sheer power of this film that makes it so enduring.
The film follows Maya, an obsessive CIA agent who is eventually successful in tracking down Osama bin Laden. Her success, however, is not absolute or unsullied; as we see in the film, this kind of success almost entirely lives in a moral grey area. There has already been controversy about the depiction of torture in the film, how the film is irresponsible for depicting “enhanced interrogation techniques” as productive. I usually hate when people say this, but I think it applies here: if you watch the film and think it’s endorsing torture, then you’re watching it wrong. Maybe Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal do think that torture is or was effective, but that’s completely irrelevant to the movie’s depiction of it. We see the terrible toll that torture takes both on the interrogator and the interrogated; and it’s ambiguous as to whether it was torture or kindness that eventually led to a detainee, Ammar, revealing the name of a courier to bin Laden who eventually leads Maya to his compound. Regardless of whether or not torture “worked,” the film does not depict it as anything but grueling and cruel, and that’s what’s most important.
Now that the elephant in the room has been addressed: I actually think that this film’s closest analogue is David Fincher’s criminally underrated Zodiac, which was able to mine terrific suspense and terror from a story that largely featured characters in rooms talking a lot. Aside from a couple of memorable scenes of shocking violence, Zodiac was really about the day-to-day groundwork professionals have to slog through to get to their eventual goal. This is where Zero Dark Thirty excels, as well. The film isn’t compelling despite sticking to the tedious daily work inherent in trying to track down a needle in a haystack; it’s compelling because of it. We are able to see professionals truly being professionals. These people are amazing at their jobs, and both admirable and sympathetic in how single-mindedly dedicated they are to their work. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t delve into their personal lives, but that wouldn’t have been necessary. We see the human toll this soul-sucking journey takes in the eyes of the actors. They make some serious missteps and have to deal with the consequences. Jessica Chastain in particular gives a beautifully reserved performance. You never get the sense that she’s “acting,” she seems completely in the moment and natural at all times. She is the film’s grimly determined anchor amidst chaos.
When the film finally makes it to bin Laden’s compound after a decade of groundwork, the sequence is gripping and chilling despite our knowledge of the outcome. It’s here that Bigelow shows her hand as an assured and brilliant director. She strips the entire sequence back to its bare minimum. To me, the most powerful element was the lack of music, the absence of the film holding our hands and leading us through the emotions we should be feeling. It shows true confidence as a director to know that you can bring the audience into the scene without trying to make a grab for it. Instead, we slowly make our way into the situation just as the characters do, following the low hum of military helicopters through dark eerie mountains. Again, without going into characters’ back stories, we feel the human tension of the Navy SEALs in the helicopter, leading themselves into a life-or-death situation, cracking jokes in an attempt to distract themselves. And when they finally make it to the compound, the tension is derived not from artificial, Hollywood-ized stakes, but from the sheer craft that the Navy SEALs display, and from the stark silence of the compound broken only by gunshots. Going into the scene, I expected it to be triumphant and cathartic, but I felt queasy watching SEALs gunning down unarmed people in front of screaming, terrified children.
This ambiguity characterizes Maya’s reaction, as well. At the end of the film, now that she’s achieved the goal she’s been after for a decade, she’s unsure of what to do or how to move forward. This, too, characterizes our nation. Bin Laden is dead — what now? His death didn’t “solve” terrorism forever. This isn’t a movie where the good guys kill the bad guys and save the day. The good guys make many, many moral sacrifices to exact revenge, and now that the revenge done, there’s nothing but a void. Over the past few years I haven’t kept myself abreast of current affairs, so maybe this means nothing coming from me, but I truly feel that Zero Dark Thirty is a defining film of our time. The last ten years in America have been marked by a pervading feeling of uncertainty and doubt. No one feels safe. Happy endings are nowhere in sight. In Zero Dark Thirty, Maya killed Osama bin Laden, and now she’s left with nothing.