I went into Zero Dark Thirty with several preconceptions. I followed the debate between film critics and political journalists very closely. I was aware of the movie’s major plot points and already had a list of key moments, and other people’s interpretations of them, floating around in my head by the time the hunt for Osama bin Laden opened in a theater near me.
And yet none of these preconceptions about Zero Dark Thirty prepared me to confront what would be my ultimate reaction to it: casual indifference. (Note: Spoilers)
As a member of the millennial generation, perhaps no single individual has shaped my America more than Osama bin Laden. I was in middle school when the the World Trade Center towers collapsed and I am several years out of college today. Countries have been invaded, wars continue to be fought, and a national security apparatus conceived of in the after math of that terrorist attack continues to expand its scope and authority in ways both unprecedented and unchallenged.
Yet as engrossing as its cinematography and scoring, its precisely executed suspense and consummate acting, Zero Dark Thirty left me emotionally and conceptually starved.
In the movie’s final scene, CIA protagonist Maya finally breaks down emotionally after her near android like stoicism the previous two and a half hours. The movie goes out of its way to keep her, and the rest of its characters, at arms length emotionally and psychologically. So while I was always invested in Maya’s quest, one which she devotes herself to uncompromisingly and at great peril, I couldn’t identify with her personally. Which makes this final scene all the more enigmatically unsatisfying. It’s clear that Maya is crying because, having committed the last decade of her life to the capture of bin Laden, his death has deprived her of the only thing she had left. But by this point the movie has reduced everything and everyone into sterile moving parts in Bigelow’s ruthlessly plotted procedural, leaving no larger narrative arcs into which Maya’s intimate revelation can be incorporated.
At no other point does the movie stop to consider Maya outside the context of the hunt for bin Laden. As a result, there’s no way to make heads or tails of this concluding moment. Maya might be the workaholic who ultimately sacrifices too much of herself for her job. Or she might be the resolute and focused operative that we need to be protecting us on that wall. Or she might be any number of other things. In the end, having encountered no context clues throughout Zero Dark Thirty‘s thematically barren sprawl there was nothing for me to do but scratch my head and wonder what the point of the movie is beyond providing an entertaining romp through contemporary psuedo-history.
Why offer no other moments of character development only to have Maya cry at what we might otherwise assume is a joyous, and perhaps the most rewarding occasion of her CIA career?
Why make a procedural thriller, of which there can be no debate that Zero Dark Thirty is, about one of the most political set of events of the last decade? Why decontextualize the quest to find bin Laden until it had been distilled into nothing more than an incredibly well financed and artful episode of Law and Order, special terrorists unit?
Why take events that spanned a decade and compress them into less than three hours, when a quarter of the entire project alone depicts events in something approximating real time? A lavishly allotted HBO mini series might have been able to devote at most an hour to each year of the hunt for bin Laden, but Zero Dark Thirty seeks to address the issues of torture, international diplomacy, CIA “Tradecraft,” and Washington politics, to varying degrees, in only 157 minutes.
I ask these questions not out of my own volition but because the movie Bigelow and writer Mark Boal created makes them impossible to ignore. After all, the two wanted to take a “journalistic” approach to dramatizing events, giving the audience a final product that would be agenda-less, not judging what it depicted, but merely rendering for movie-goers a “boots on the ground” feel for what actually transpired. In her own hunt for objectivity, Bigelow delivers beautifully directed scene after beautifully directed scene which nevertheless come together to form an overall directionless movie.
Perhaps most of you are aware by now of the part of the movie which has inspired the most controversy: the degree to which it shows torture yielding information crucial to the eventual killing of bin Laden. More telling than anything that happens on screen though has been Bigelow’s response to this criticism off it. As a recent profile in the New York Times noted,
“But Ms. Bigelow…was not particularly keen to discuss torture over lunch, she said, partly because she wants her work to speak for itself and partly because she is aware that any public comments could just add fuel to the fire (and partly because she was eating lunch). No, on this chilly Los Angeles day, over her bowl of mushroom soup at a secluded restaurant near Mulholland Drive, Ms. Bigelow wanted to discuss her “Zero Dark Thirty” crew, people like the production designer Jeremy Hindle.”
Bigelow’s explanation for the movie’s approach to torture has relentlessly been something along the lines of “let each viewer decide for themselves.” This generally sophomoric defense of the movie is especially disheartening here because the subject is one which deserves attention. Having gone to such lengths to not only include torture in the movie, which Bigelow claims was necessary because it really was a part of the nation’s history, but to have it result in the single most important piece of information upon which the main characters base most of their future actions, is to take unequivocal responsibility for its protrayel and significance.
As Noah Millman argued, it isn’t enough to simply depict torture in the context of Zero Dark Thirty, because its form as a procedural thriller necessarily locates the events which take place within it as either helpful or harmful to the end goal,
“if it’s not in the story for a reason, then why is it in the story you are telling? There has to be an answer for that question – the audience will look for one if you don’t provide one. And if your point is to say “this has nothing to do with the story” then I’m afraid that point is going to become your story, and will eclipse the story of the quest. So long as you are telling a story fundamentally about the quest, everything else is going to be understood in relation to that story.”
There are many different ways the hunt for bin Laden could have been cinematically dramatized. One could, for example, make a film like Syriana, which despite a generally positive reception was criticized for the confusion resulting from its subtle layering of loosely interwoven narratives. Syriana was in fact so good at just letting the images on screen be taken as is, something Bigelow claims to have been striving for, that many viewers ultimately couldn’t piece them together into a coherent vision. Thematically knotted and narratively disorienting though it was, Syriana was however able to convey a sense of the dizzying inadequacy of real world espionage and “Tradecraft” precisely by denying the audience a linear story with easily comprehended chains of cause and effect.
Reviewing the movie at the time, Richard Corliss noted that, “Successful movies are, it’s said, the ones whose story and appeal can be expressed in a single sentence. To summarize Syriana, writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s drama about petro-politics, you would need a book the size of The 9/11 Commission Report.” Corliss referred to how the movie achieved this as a kind of “illustrated journalism.”
Bigelow has decided on the phrase “imagistic version of living history” instead, something the Washington Times called “a new kind of timely fusing of filmmaking and journalism.” But the result is entirely different. Whereas Syriana is diffuse and indeterminate, Zero Dark Thirty is direct and infinitely digestible. And even more importantly, whereas the former is fictional realism based on made up events to capture a larger truth, the latter is a realistic dramatization made up of “first hand accounts and actual events” with the effect, if not intent, of obscuring more than it reveals.
Several times Bigelow and Boal have defended any liberties they took in the making of the movie by reminding of us of how much “compression” was necessitated in making the biggest manhunt of all time short enough to be viewed in one sitting. But this was a necessity born of a more basic choice, one Bigelow and Boal made when they decided to construct Zero Dark Thirty as a strictly linear plot progression, split into three acts, separated by two important discoveries.
The first occurs when Maya learns from a broken and tortured “detainee” the name of Osama’s courier. The second occurs when this courier is finally discovered, and seen driving into an ominous residential compound. Everything that happens is the painstaking result of everything that already happened. Clues build upon one another, leads are explored and exhausted, until an overall case for where bin Laden might be located, and the probability he is actually there, can be presented to the White House in a request for an assault.
The “police work” that is carried out by a handful of fixated CIA operatives is methodical and unflinching, utilizing everything from “enhanced interrogation techniques” to conventional surveillance anyone who’s watched the Wire will be familiar with. The investigation has hiccups, and sometimes stalls, but is never deeply mistaken or required to backtrack. The march to bin Laden’s “fortress” in Abbottabad, Pakistan, as depicted by Bigelow, is unidirectional.
Every scene moves the team that much closer to apprehending the number one target. It has to–that’s how a fiction of the form Bigelow has chosen functions. And our knowledge as omniscient viewers only applies more forward momentum because we know how the movie will end. In retrospect then, and due to what Bigelow decides to include in her retelling, as well as exclude, things cannot end any other way than with the eventual discovery and execution of bin Laden.
This formal necessity, maintained at every turn by the movie’s heroine and its director, is in part why a surface level reading of the movie is incontrovertibly “pro torture.” And by pro torture I mean that the movie contends, beyond any reasonable doubt, that without the torture you don’t find bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty would certainly not be the first to suggest this. Bush Administration officials have been claiming this for years.
But this is no surprise. For a movie steeped in CIA ideology, only ever allowing its audience to inhabit the points of view of its CIA operatives, ones all-consumed by the mission to find bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty‘s pro torture agenda isn’t an agenda at all. It’s simply another fact on the ground necessitated by the subjects Bigelow has chosen to focus her lens on.
I call the pro torture reading a surface level one because it could easily be argued, and has been, that Bigelow isn’t really trying to tell the story of bin Laden’s capture, but just a story. And in so far as Zero Dark Thirty is one of the possible stories about how bin Laden was found and killed, Bigelow does indeed remain the neutral observer.
And that again is the reason I’m left asking: why Zero Dark Thirty? Why take a journalistic approach to a movie with such a narrow subject matter (how one kind of CIA operative hunted bin Laden)? Why make a movie about such politically important events in which the characters and the conceptual landscape they inhabit cannot even imagine another way of doing things; in which the very facts and arguments necessary to reflect upon and critique the subject cannot even be admitted as an ontological possibility into the universe of its fiction?
Only those people who have actively resisted being pulled into the world of the movie’s characters will walk out at the end feeling legitimately appalled by its protagonists. Nearly every character we are invested in is to some degree a war criminal. Maya should be in jail. As should her mentor, and many of her closest colleagues. But you will not leave the theater thinking that. It will not even be a question that gets raised (except again by those who fail to let Zero Dark Thirty envelop them). The movie never raises the issue, and never gives a reason for you as a viewer to do so either.
For Bigelow, the hunt for bin Laden is settled history. I assume this because if she thinks the history of what happened is actually unresolved, then she has actively misled and deceived in the vile kind of ways that only bad art can. Of course, the matter is far from settled. Whether you agree with former Bush officials of the world, or the Sullivans and Greenwalds, its indisputable that this subject is still hotly contested. So why then does Bigelow stoop to offering us a revenge flick served at an artificially cold temperature? Why no internal dissent about the best means for locating bin Laden, or even a better realized discussion of the merits of continuing to search for him so doggedly in the first place?
Bigelow’s movie is based on “actual events” but not the “actual discussions” which took place. And having locked itself into an epistemically closed loop of procedural drama driven by one-dimensional characters, it has yielded nothing new that might contribute to the cultural discourse surrounding its historical subject matter. We will all be having a conversation about torture, the CIA, and international terrorism thanks to Zero Dark Thirty, but it will not be a better conversation than the one we’ve already had so many times before.