Watching the opening moments of Zero Dark Thirty at Westdale Theatre is a somewhat surreal experience. Just as you are settling in amidst the mini-movie palace’s warm décor, you are confronted with the authentic sounds of shearing metal, licking flames, and anguished cries for help. Director Kathryn Bigelow begins the film with a horrific collage of phone calls from 9/11 that suddenly makes eating popcorn seem in poor taste.
Zero Dark Thirty is being marketed as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt,” and this opening sequence vividly conveys what is driving the hunters. The film follows the American operatives who pursued Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks. This elite team’s most relentless member is Maya (Jessica Chastain), whose methods soon propel the film into perilous moral territory.
We watch as Maya and her allies humiliate and brutalize their prisoners. Unsurprisingly, Zero Dark Thirty has sustained heavy criticism for glorifying torture and this controversy has clouded the film’s Oscar fortunes. In an essay recently published in the LA Times, Bigelow defended her work, claiming to “support all protests against the use of torture” and that “depiction is not endorsement.”
I remain unconvinced.
During the early waterboarding sequences, my mind kept turning to a different essay: Christopher Hitchens’ “Believe Me, It’s Torture.” For this 2008 piece in Vanity Fair, Hitchens deliberately subjected himself to waterboarding by Special Forces veterans. Bigelow conveys none of the unendurable agony that Hitchens describes. Moreover, the film completely abdicates the moral outrage underlying Hitchens’ final wish that “my experience were the only way in which the words ‘waterboard’ and ‘American’ could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) sentence.” Indeed, aside from a moment when Maya is warned not to be caught with a captive in a dog collar under the Obama administration, the film almost entirely sidesteps the ethical debate over “enhanced interrogation.”
Perhaps Bigelow is right that the film cannot be conclusively said to endorse torture. But it is certainly true that Zero Dark Thirty does not decry it either. To me, that seems almost as unnerving.
I was similarly troubled by the film’s Islamophobic undertones. With the exception of one translator, virtually all of the Middle-Eastern characters onscreen are fanatical, foolish, or corrupt.
Despite these intellectual objections, however, it is impossible to deny that Zero Dark Thirty is viscerally exciting. In the script by Mark Boal, there is much discussion of “tradecraft,” the advanced skills that are used by spies on all sides. Bigelow has evidently mastered the director’s “tradecraft” and, as in 2009’s The Hurt Locker, she builds scenes of incredible suspense. The climactic raid on bin Laden’s hideout, partially seen through the emerald glow of night-vision goggles, is particularly tension-filled.
Bigelow’s development of character, by contrast, is much less meticulous. Although we watch Maya become consumed by an Ahab-like fixation on bin Laden, we receive only fleeting glimpses of her true inner life.
Moreover, it is often ambiguous how the filmmakers intend the audience to feel towards their protagonist. Is she a hero, who defies the patriarchy and bureaucracy of the intelligence community, or is she a pathetic figure, who has been warped and exploited by this same system? Many viewers will presumably cheer Maya’s zealousness and the unrelenting pressure she places on her skeptical supervisors. I, however, felt grateful that such oversight existed to constrain Maya’s reckless, single-minded fury.
Near the end of the film, one of Maya’s foot-dragging fellow agents explains that the CIA deals in probabilities, rather than absolutes. This same sense of uncertainty pervades Zero Dark Thirty. In this respect, then, the audience’s role is similar to that of an intelligence analyst like Maya. The viewer must sort through a deluge of information, while struggling to draw tricky conclusions about torture and counter-terrorism.
When Oscar voters offer their verdict in three weeks, I know that I will be watching.
By: Cooper Long