Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
The September 11th attacks are without question of the most significant moments in the history of our current century and the scope of post-Cold War foreign policy. Osama bin Laden is also one of the most notorious historical figures of our age. Zero Dark Thirty creates a fictional tableau to explain how bin Laden was found and ultimately executed. Of course, because of the safety of the people involved and in an effort not to compromise the intelligence gathering apparatus we will never know the names of anyone directly involved, from the CIA agents to the members of Seal Team Six. Instead, we’re given the story of fictional analyst Maya who follows a winding path trying to discover the whereabouts of a messenger who would deliver directives from Al-Qaeda leadership to cells on the ground. Without realizing what she has stumbled upon she is shocked to discover the journey has led her to a walled compound where bin Laden is hiding out.
There’s no way a film about these events could be anything but controversial. The height of the “War on Terrorism” era was rife with revelations about torture and black sites. In many ways, this film charts the end of any pretensions by informed Americans that their government was an operator of noble intent. Director Kathryn Bigelow had a tough job and tightrope to walk. The questions I believe a filmmaker would have had approaching this movie would be “How do I portray the use of torture as an interrogation technique?” and “How do I show the death of bin Laden on screen?” Zero Dark Thirty has received criticism by both critics and defenders of detainee torture, the movie acting like a Rorschach inkblot, showing each party what it is they want to see and get upset about.
I don’t try to hide my views on torture and am wholly opposed to the act even if it could save lives, which has been proven to be unable to do. During this era, it became well-documented that the majority of subjects being water-boarded or submitted to other quaintly labeled “enhanced interrogation” techniques would often say what they believed the torturer wanted to hear. However, television programming like 24 helped to spread popular propaganda that there was always some ticking time bomb out there and heroes were good because they violated basic tenets of humanity. Alex Gibney’s 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side does an excellent job of detailing how innocent people ended up in Guantanamo Bay where they were tortured despite having no connections to any of the terrorist cells being investigated.
I believe Zero Dark Thirty tries to walk the line about torture in too precious of a manner. They work hard not to condemn its use, showing Maya suffering some emotional effects of participating in the act (but with no real longterm consequence). On the other hand, they frame the narrative so that valuable information comes from these sessions of degradation. From a writing perspective, you want scenes to move the story forward, and so that is why torture work on screen in Zero Dark Thirty. However, realistically and morally it is very dubious that Bigelow was okay with this portrayal.
There is restraint from allowing the film to devolve into a celebration of violence or shallow nationalistic self-pleasure. There’s much interesting tension between Maya and the people above her in the CIA and the White House. Maya is dead set in her belief that bin Laden is in the walled Pakistani compound, but the White House is reasonably hesitant because bungling something like the apprehension and execution of the most wanted man in the world would have been a nightmare the Obama administration would have never recovered from. The problem for me is that Bigelow gets so caught up in the procedural elements of telling this story she loses all real humanity in her characters.
The Hurt Locker was an excellent examination of the effects of wartime on a person’s psyche and how the trauma of war creates a barrier to re-entering society. That could have been true for Maya, but where the film ends, we’ll never know. If I was more generous, I could argue that the lack of closure for Maya and the audience is a statement about how consumed by the war on terrorism and for a hunt for vengeance that our culture became that we are unable to move beyond this moment. I do hold the belief that 9/11 was the most traumatic event that has happened in the United States in my lifetime and I have no hope that we can collectively move past it. It’s the root of many of the opening and re-opening of psychic wounds, some of which were festering beforehand. Zero Dark Thirty is not The Hurt Locker when comparing for the quality of character development. There was no way you could, so this is about the best we could hope for.