Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty"

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen and the sound of panicked voices. It is September 11, 2001 and the people working inside the World Trade Center that morning are calling loved ones and 911 operators, fearing the worst but still not knowing the real horror to come. Claustrophobic and unnerving, it is the briefest of introductions and the only explicit reference to 9/11, but with it director Kathryn Bigelow is reminding us of how we all felt that morning – the sense of confusion and shock which, in the days and weeks that followed, would transform into rage and the need for revenge.

From there, Zero Dark Thirty hits the ground running, taking us through the very dirty work of finding the man we held accountable for that day. Through the eyes of the participants, the film details ten ugly years that eventually lead to a single night in Pakistan where a team of Navy SEALS finished the job.  A dramatization of the facts as best as Bigelow and her The Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal could assemble them, Zero Dark Thirty is part police procedural and part espionage thriller capped off by 40 minutes of intense action movie. It entertains, but by offering a clear-eyed, neutral look at some of the very worst of our actions in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the film is also does a great deal more. It transcends simple speech-making, instead requiring us to confront what happened and to decide for ourselves what was right and what was wrong. Bracingly, it doesn’t easily let us off the hook for our own complicity.

Playing a character supposedly based on a real woman, Jessica Chastain is Maya, a young CIA operative obsessed with putting together the pieces that will lead to Osama bin Laden. Jason Clarke plays CIA man Dan, a composite of several individuals and a seemingly conscienceless expert at the art of torture. Together they work on detainees who, in the murky moral and legal terrain of post-9/11, are whisked off to mysterious locations around the world and subjected to a nauseating array of physical and psychological brutalities in order to get them to give over information.

It is a slow, grueling, often fruitless process made complicated by the shifting political sands back home as one administration gives way to another. Maya endures however as the years drag on and eventually, mostly through the hard work of traditional intelligence combined with a few happy accidents, the pieces fall into place and bin Laden’s location is discovered with an acceptable degree of certainty, or at least enough certainty to call in the SEAL team.

After wading us through the moral fog of the investigation itself, Bigelow doesn’t cop out in the end with a rousing action payoff designed to send you out of the theater in a patriotic adrenalin rush. Dark and claustrophobic, bin Laden’s compound is a maze of hallways and floors populated by unknown women and children whose screams never let you feel good about what you know is going to happen. It is tense and thrilling but also unnerving and deeply disturbing. Exactly when the kill happens is not entirely clear. There’s no special emphasis on it nor any music cues calculated to tell you how to feel about what you’re seeing.

That lack of calculation is the key to both the controversy that has sprung up around the film’s depictions and also of its ultimate brilliance. As much as any film can, Zero Dark Thirty never forces you into an opinion about whether what you’re seeing is right and wrong. To lay blame or point fingers would be to let the audience itself off the hook, to absolve it of complicity in the actions taken by our government. This is a movie as much about our own feelings over events as they unfold as it is about the events themselves. It’s a sounding board and a conversation starter about one of the most important decades in our country’s history. 9/11 and bin Laden in a way are just MacGuffins. What is important is how we responded to them as a nation and, when all the ugly facts are known, whether we are OK with how it all went down.

Contrary to claims, Zero Dark Thirty never makes the case that torture was a necessary part of finding bin Laden. The actual trail of evidence and the means by which that evidence was procured are at all times muddy and unclear as depicted in the film. What is a fact is that torture happened and, in the early going, Zero Dark Thirty rubs your face in it. It is unsettling in ways that simply reading about torture can never be. While not especially bloody or harsh compared to what we see in ordinary horror movies, the scenes are harrowing and you continually have to confront the idea that these things really happened in the name of the country in which we’ve been taught to be proud. It will come as a shock to a lot of people and it should.

What is interesting and perhaps a little disconcerting is that Zero Dark Thirty works rather brilliantly as pure entertainment. As an espionage thriller, it out Bournes the Bourne series and the suspenseful raid sequence at the end is as good as anything from the best action movie. Just because it is gripping, engaging and entertaining, however, don’t think for a moment that Zero Dark Thirty is content simply to amuse its audience for a couple of fleeting hours. While distracting you with crackling action and suspense, the film meanwhile drills down into your own conscience and then leaves you to decide for yourself what you find. What happened? What did we really achieve and, more importantly, at what cost to ourselves and our nation? Working on the surface while gut punching you with what’s going on underneath, inviting you to be thrilled by outcomes while horrifying you on the path to achieving them, Zero Dark Thirty is more than just a total of its component parts. As a chillingly honest portrayal of a vital part of our history and of our collective mindset, it is the movie of the year.

17 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty (2012)”

  1. “Just because it is gripping, engaging and entertaining, however, don’t think for a moment that Zero Dark Thirty is content simply to amuse its audience for a couple of fleeting hours. While distracting you with crackling action and suspense, the film meanwhile drills down into your own conscience and then leaves you to decide for yourself what you find. What happened? What did we really achieve and, more importantly, at what cost to ourselves and our nation?”

    Well, Sir, when you are passionate (and heck even when you are not some of the times) you are one of the best writers out there, and today’s all too rare five-star appreciation of this critically-lauded film speaks volumes. I will be finally seeing the film later this evening in Manhattan (with AMOUR set for tomorrow night) You again make it clear that the entire point of view of the acceptibility of torture is rightly left to perception and interpretation, and I will be looking hard at that aspect during my own viewing. I understand that the film purportedly works as entertainment and as profound political/social document, and it is the work of an extremely talented director, one whom most are saying has outdone her artistry in THE HURT LOCKER. This uncompromising essay makes a far stronger endorcement than even any of the critical awards the film has won. Bravo.

  2. I kind of reject the political arguments I’ve heard of the film as you know, but that’s not to say there probably aren’t cinematic arguments to be made against it. Richard Brody wrote a really nice piece about it that avoided the political angle and zeroed in on the filmmaking and was less than 100% positive on it. A much more thoughtful review at least than Peter Rainer’s pan on moral grounds.

    Anyway, I have no idea how you’ll come down on the film, but I look forward as always to hearing what you think.

  3. It’s killing me that I can’t see this this weekend (Christmas? Really? Seriously?) but I will be back immediately after seeing it to read your review.

  4. I saw it late last night with my wife Lucille and 15 year-old son Sammy at a 42nd Street multiplex at 9:30 P.M. I am getting my thoughts together for some kind of a written reaction, but suffice to say I am pretty much with Craig all the way. This is powerful, superlative film, that fully earns the five-star rating, and for me strongly contends for the top film of the year. I still need to see some key films over the coming days but this is in the mix. I will say that I think Bigelow handled the torture the way it should have been done. B ut more on that later.

  5. There are a couple of times a year Joel, when it’s a benefit to live in Los Angeles! Minor benefits I admit, but we take what we can get.

    Good news Sam. Look forward to discussing it with you further.

  6. I finally saw this last weekend and I’d agree with your review: this film is as much an open-ended question aimed at the audience itself as it is a steady and expertly crafted distillation of the events themselves. Due to all the controversy around ZDT, I’ve spent the last couple weeks immersed in the reportage of the various events that the film purports to dramatize, and it is reliably accurate based on what is known (and who knows if that is accurate, either?). That’s a testament to the thoughtful writing and direction behind the film, and the Academy has embarrassed themselves yet again by overlooking Bigelow for Best Director.

    For me, the real achievement of ZDT is in its refusal to take any clear stands. It’s not some jingoistic America Fuck Yeah action film like Act of Valor, nor is it any righteous condemnation of our failures like we might expect from Alex Gibney. It methodical lays out the evidence of what was done to get this man, and leaves it up to us to judge the matter.

  7. Were you surprised Joel how the movie played out based on what you might have heard from some of the more shrill critics of the film?

    If there’s a flaw in it, it might be that it’s still “too soon” to really understand how this all went down. I believe Boal/BIgelow did the best they could with the facts that they learned from first person sources, but it’s a dangerous game that easily left the film open to controversy.

    On the other hand, controversy is good. It’s great that these subjects are talked about. I know torture has been a controversy all along, but I kind of think people don’t really understand what it is theyr’e talking about when they’re talking about torture, and I also think a lot of people after bin Laden was killed, kind of just conveniently chose to forget how we got to that place and that’s wrong. One might well agree with every step we took, including torture, but it’s something that should be aired out and talked about. This movie makes us ask what kind of a country we want to be.

  8. I think it’s possible to take away what the most shrill critics are taking away, although Glenn Greenwald has taken his hyperbole way too far, but that’s mainly because they’re choosing to focus on some aspects and ignore others. The harshest criticism could come of the heroic portrayal of Maya and the various CIA officials’ dismissal of Congress’ oversight of torture. But damning it for that means you’re ignoring the fact that the film doesn’t shy from showing Maya’s bad choices, nor does it defend or condone them.

    For critics, the film’s biggest sin is that it makes no judgement. I think that is it’s biggest strength too. For people like Alex Gibney, who need things repeatedly and overtly spelled out for the audience, that’s unacceptable.

  9. That’s why Gibney makes documentaries… which by the way also are limited by their POV and anyone who claims they’re being completely objective is naive or lying.

    I think it might’ve helped the film if there was one character in there somewhere who questioned the torture, but at the same time I don’t think that’s what Bigelow/Boal were interested in. They were trying to let the actions speak for themselves, for better and for worse.

    I’m ok with that. In fact I think that’s what makes it interesting.

  10. The other thing is even if you believe the film makes a clear case that torture is useful and even if you believe 100% that it is not, I don’t see how any reasonable person can spin that into “Zero Dark Thirty is pro torture” That’s absurd.

  11. Alex Gibney: I have a great deal of admiration for much of his work, but I don’t consider him “journalistic” in his approach nor is he unbiased or objective. I think he sometimes goes way overboard even when I agree with his points. His lengthy attack on ZDT contains some worthy points of discussion, but for the most part he just comes off as hypocritical and condescending.

  12. I’ve said this before elsewhere so I don’t know if I’m just repeating myself, but the people (like Gibney, and Mayer and Greenwald) who cling to the “torture doesn’t work” argument are basically doomed. It’s a basic principle of logic and maybe even science that you can’t prove a negative. Just because something has never happened, doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future. If you judge torture on that basis, people will always do it because they’ll think “well maybe it’ll work this time. Maybe they were just doing it wrong before.” Torture has to be judged on moral grounds. It’s like slavery, it’s right or it’s wrong. Not everyone will watch ZDT and conclude that torture is wrong, but I think a lot of people who hadn’t really even thought about it will decide that it is, and that’s imporant.

    Plus, I think critics overstate how successful torture is in the film. Yes, a victim of torture gives up the alias of a courier (interestingly while he’s not being tortured), but it’s the same name given up by 20 other guys, many of whom we can assume were not tortured. It’s a dead end for several years (when many more acts of terror are carried out) until good old fashioned detective work finally solves the puzzle.

    Yes, the movie suggests valuable information came from torture, but there’s no claim that this was the only or the best way to get that information and it was far from “the key” to finding bin Laden. It’s kind of portrayed that way in the film, but an objective analysis of what is presented, I don’t think that’s the case.

  13. Torture did yield results. That has been documented. And I think you have to be fairly delusional to believe that subjecting any human to torment, pain, and unending discomfort won’t eventually break them. But the results have been shown to be of very negligible value, and more humane forms of interrogation have traditionally worked much better. Plus, those humane methods aren’t torture.

    I agree that the problem isn’t that the film depicts torture as working so much as it depicts torture accomplishing anything at all. We as a society let the Dick Cheneys and Jack Bauers of our world lead us to believe that torture is OK because it works, when the real issue should be torture is barbaric and we’re better than that, and more importantly we don’t do it because we don’t want our enemies to have the justification to do it to us. End of story.

    But sadly, liberals keep ceding ground to neo-conservatives on issues like this and end up fighting ideological skirmishes instead of just fighting the bigger moral battles.

  14. And I should admit that when this whole topic first came up, I got myself mentally caught up in it. But after doing some further reading on the subject and actually seeing the film, I realized that most of the criticism of ZDT on this matter is misguided or simply wrong.

  15. Just saw ZDT a few hours ago. The film was great to watch, but I enjoyed Hurt Locker more somehow. Anyways, I couldn’t help myself to compare Maya with Carrie from Homeland (as well as other aspects of both ZDT and Homeland)… kinda funny considering both Jessica Chastain and Claire Danes won at the Globes for playing similar characters.

    No complaining from me regarding the torture scenes… I think we’ve seen worse in film and real life at any rate.

    Somehow, Homeland took away some of the enjoyment in my viewing of ZDT. But ZDT still makes me wanting to see what else could Bigelow do.

  16. I was actually surprised there was such an uproar from people about the torture, which is less than the first half of the film. I guess people needed to have Chastain saying “I feel so bothered for torturing him and not getting anything” to be okay with it?

  17. It boils down to one scene where a tortured person gives up a piece of information. The anti-torture activists won’t admit torture works.

    Rodgrigo, I liked ZDT better than Hurt Locker because I feel like it didn’t reveal it’s POV as easily. They’re both wonderful.

    Isn’t it true Carrie and Maya were based on the same woman or am I just imagining that? I get the comparison to Homeland, but that seems to exist purely for entertainment while ZDT actually has something to say.

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