The wildly overblown controversy over torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty has, unfortunately, taken over much of the discussion about the film itself, which is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship that takes a script (by Mark Boal) with a barebones plot and an ending that everyone in the audience already knows and turns it into a gripping account of a manhunt and for a government’s willingness to let one end justify many sordid means.
The film itself unfolds like a series rather than a single movie, almost like the kind of multi-episode story arc you’d find on British television over a full season of 240 minutes. Zero Dark Thirty compresses its story into about 135 minutes, the last third dedicated to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, with the first third melding the needle-in-a-haystack search for information with various Islamic terrorist attacks on the west and some unstinting depictions of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” generally known by people with functioning brains as “torture,” by the CIA of terrorist detainees. It boasts the tension of a thriller despite having the plot no more complex than that of a detective story: Maya, a CIA analyst played skilfully by Jessica Chastain as a sort of Carrie Mathiesen without the crazy, latches on to a new bit of information from one of those detainees and refuses to let it go, even though years of false starts and dead ends, because she believes that what detainees aren’t saying is often as telling as what they are.
Maya’s obsession with this detail, the name of a man whom she believes has substantial direct access to the big foozle himself, leads to some slightly predictable clashes with bosses and colleagues, one played by a surprisingly lifeless Kyle Chandler, but also emphasizes her isolation from nearly everyone she works with except for those who share her particular ardor for this clue. She eventually puts together just enough convincing evidence and just enough of a threat to her boss to put a surveillance team on the finally-located target, which leads to one of the film’s best scenes, where four operatives drive around a hostile city tracking the target’s cell phone to try to identify him in person – something that could be as dull as a butter knife but is filmed and paced to layer tension on top of it.
Bigelow’s other method of infusing tension into a story that, at its core, is a slow chase down a paper trail, is to use reality to punctuate the fits and starts of Maya’s search efforts. The film opens with a black screen and recordings of 911 calls from victims of the September 11th attacks, and the story eventually weaves in the London and Madrid attacks, the Islamabad Marriott bombing, and the suicide attack on the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. Such detours provide context for the increased emphasis within the CIA’s unit looking for bin Laden/al-Qaeda on finding targets to kill, as well as creating some of the moral ambiguity that might be upsetting the film’s critics – if al-Qaeda continues to launch attacks, does that justify using unethical or unconscionable means to try to stop them?
The final third of the film, in which two choppers full of Navy SEALs (including Chris “Bert Macklin” Pratt and Joel Edgerton) raid bin Laden’s compound in the middle of the night, should have been more than enough to earn Bigelow a Best Director nod. Filmed with minimal light, often through the perspective of the SEALs’ night-vision goggles, and almost entirely from a ground-level view that further obscures the audience’s vision, it still refuses to take sides – even though the audience knows the target is worthy of this effort to execute him – and makes superb use of silence to put the audience into the house with the SEALs, while playing the actual killing of bin Laden in a deliberate, understated manner that seems so un-Hollywood it’s hard to believe this was an American film.
The claims around Zero Dark Thirty‘s depiction of CIA-direct torture seem to contradict themselves: The film advocates torture, it fails to condemn torture, and it shows torture as useless. Certainly the last point has value – the critical revelation from a tortured detainee comes not as he’s being waterboarded or stuffed in a box that would cramp a small child’s body, but as he’s being fed a normal Middle Eastern meal while Maya and her “I-vuz-just-following-orders” colleague Dan trick him into thinking he’s already told them key details but has forgotten about it. I see no argument that the film supports the use of torture, since it shows such techniques quite brutally and has examples of information derived from torture as unreliable. Adding condemnation is largely unnecessary; if you can watch the torture scenes without flinching or averting your eyes, you might be a sociopath. Watching a grown man beg for mercy, or the deterioration in his face over multiple scenes, is repulsive enough. Bigelow doesn’t need to turn this into a finger-wagging morality play because the truth itself mocks us for our own indifference.
Boal’s script runs the story like a documentary without interviews, as if we’re watching action in real time, with so much emphasis on the central storyline that we are spared subplots or any real investment in characters beyond Maya. That means that some talented actors appear in very limited roles, such as the CIA station chief, Jessica, played by Jennifer Ehle, looking more like a bewigged Meryl Streep than Elizabeth Bennet; or Edgerton and Pratt, who get a few moments of seriousness and a few of clowning before setting off on the climactic raid. I’m usually a strong advocate of character development in films, especially ones of this length, but there is so much to the underlying story and its unfurling is so masterful that any digressions to give us more on the characters would have like punching pinholes in a garden hose. Perhaps the script’s worst moment comes when Jessica tries to grill Maya over her personal life, including lack of friends (really? not a single one?) or disinterest in office hookups (“I don’t want to be the girl that fucks,” a throwaway phrase ironic given Maya’s later deployment of profanity that marks one of the film’s best lines).
I don’t understand how Bigelow ended up on the outside of the Best Director Oscar nominations, and I’m not enough of an expert on film direction to offer more than an amateur’s “I don’t get it” on the subject. Zero Dark Thirty is superb almost start to finish, definitely the strongest of the four Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, with Chastain a worthy Best Actress nominee, although I’d still lean toward Jennifer Lawrence for her work with a more complex role in Silver Linings Playbook. To the credit of Boal, Bigelow, and Chastain, however, they turned a marvelous trick with her character: They’ve built a strong, smart, desexualized female protagonist who ends up pretty damn sexy just by being awesome.
On the same subject, two books earn a number of mentions in articles about the Zero Dark Thirty non-troversy: Mark Bowden’s The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden and the pseudonymous SEAL team member Mark Owen’s No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden. I’ve never read either book.