The first time I watched Zero Dark Thirty, I was mostly impressed, particularly with its skillful plotting and the direction of the suspenseful set pieces. But as I thought more about the film, I became increasingly troubled by it, not necessarily because of its much-debated depiction of torture but due to its thin characterizations and odd mix of reportage and fictionalization. A second viewing confirmed my suspicions. Kathryn Bigelow’s latest on the hunt for Osama bin Laden is well-crafted but far from great and lesser than the sum of its parts. And from a more philosophical, theoretical standpoint it takes the medium of film for granted, never fully grasping the responsibility of representation or the baggage that comes with fictional Hollywood storytelling.
To be clear, this is not meant to be a traditional review of the film (a clarification that is becoming more and more predictable on this blog). It is instead my attempt to articulate my issues with the film and pose some lingering questions. I think much of the criticism of this film has been broad, politicized and sometimes downright silly, making it very easy for the overwhelming majority that loves the film to defuse any arguments against it. Zero Dark Thirty is a problematic film, one that reveals just how hollow and sometimes dangerous it is on repeat viewings. (And just to get this out of the way now because I really want to say it, and it isn’t really relevant to anything else: James Gandolfini’s wig is really embarrassing.)
Indeed, the film gets off to a terrible start with its most offensive, exploitative moment. With the screen completely dark, the soundtrack features desperate 911 calls from individuals in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Certainly, this functions to remind viewers of the attack on the homeland that made the search for Osama so important in the first place, but the use of these calls, whether they’re real or dramatized, is completely unjustified. If the calls are real, imagine an audience member hearing the voice of a loved one, perhaps dead, and to have that tragedy framed as sickly ironic, with the emergency responder telling them everything is going to be okay when we know that is not the case.
But it would have been just as problematic to reenact these calls. This gets at what I see as one of the issues of the film, how it seems to misunderstand the responsibility of announcing itself from the very start as based on first-hand accounts. The beginning of Alain Resnais’ 1959 feature Hiroshima, mon amour features a series of images that present society’s attempts to depict or reenact the tragedies of the atomic bomb – footage of burn victims, shots of the museums, visits to the titular Japanese city itself, etc. But it’s all set to one of the characters insisting again and again that his naïve companion “saw nothing in Hiroshima.” It is a haunting sequence that suggests the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of representing tragedy or any moment in history, for that matter.
I’m not saying every movie should so consciously play with form, or that a fact-based feature such as Zero Dark Thirty cannot work as propulsive, classically constructed procedural. But Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal tackle the material with self-seriousness but very little self-awareness. Their film proudly suggests it can and it will do its best to provide an exciting and ostensibly sophisticated account of recent history. Other 2012 releases such as Lincoln and Django Unchained certainly pose some interesting issues of historical representation, but there is more general knowledge about those moments in times and, as a result, probably more healthy skepticism. More importantly, both of these films revel in their artifice, whether it is the icon-inscribing cinematography of Janusz Kaminski or the cinematic playfulness of Quentin Tarantino. While Zero Dark Thirty is most certainly a fictionalized account, it is dressed up and packaged to suggest otherwise. Consider the previously mentioned trumpeting of the reporting that went into the script or the documentary-esuqe hand-held camerawork. Classical Hollywood storytelling is not necessarily the wrong way to tell the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But Bigelow and Boal invite us to contemplate the morality of the actions depicted without ever questioning or complicating the validity of their images.
Zero Dark Thirty follows in the tradition of classical storytelling audiences have been conditioned to expect in the movies, and one of the primary aspects of such filmmaking is narrative causality, relevant to the film’s depiction of torture. Many of those either critiquing or defending the film’s use of torture have completely overstated and sometimes misrepresented their cases. Arguments suggesting that the film completely endorses torture feel a bit simplistic, and I tend to think they are exaggerating their points and ignoring the text that exists.
But those defending the film are not always honest about the film’s representation. Watching Zero Dark Thirty again, I can confirm that torture does lead to the capture of bin Laden, at least as it is depicted in the narrative. The key to unlocking the case is the name Abu Ahmed, a name first uttered by a character who is tortured in the first few scenes. Though he offers the name under friendly conditions, the threat of “enhanced interrogation” is clearly held over his head by Jason Clarke’s Dan. The film does not necessarily endorse torture, and I think there is a deeper conversation to be had about the inherent issues of representing such horrific acts. (Francois Truffaut once suggested there is no such thing as an anti-war film because the images will inherently glorify the violence and defend it.) But many of those defending the film should nuance their arguments by acknowledging the film’s narrative does suggest that, justified or not, torture led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Narrative causality is king in classical Hollywood storytelling, so it’s essential to get that right.
Another key element of Hollywood storytelling is identification with key characters. What’s interesting is that while the film might not glorify torture with its brutal depictions, it does villainize those that get in the way. When Mark Strong’s George butts heads with Stephen Dillane’s National Security Adviser, the characterizations unambiguously (though probably unintentionally) suggest who is in the right and who is in the wrong. As Republicans might suggest about the president he works under, the Obama official is cast as smug, condescending and a little too intellectual, looking down at his smart phone while Strong’s character complains about the CIA’s impotency without the detainee program. The advising team’s suggestion that the unknown figure in the Abottabod compound might be a drug dealer is framed as absurd. Dillane’s caricature resembles the bureaucratic bullies of the ‘80s in films like Ghostbusters. There are grey areas in Zero Dark Thirty, but praise of the film’s moral ambiguity and objectivity are overstated. I sense people have seen the movie they want to see, projecting their own inner conflicts onto a movie that, for the most part, tells a very specific version of the story. There is only so much room for reflection with a fictional procedure that is this dependent on forward momentum.
The film’s emphasis on procedure over people could prevent Zero Dark Thirty from being an enduring film. Indeed, the details are fascinating, but it relies heavily on the most sensationalistic aspects of the story. We do not see the paper-pushing discovery by a low-level worker that ultimately gives the Abu Ahmed lead the clarity it needs. (Not to mention, this character is forgotten and pushed aside as a mere footnote.) This might be defended as consistent with Maya’s perspective, but we do see Jennifer Ehle’s Jessica fall into a trap when following a false lead. Thanks to Bigelow’s knack for action, the set pieces are impressive and visceral, so we do not necessarily stop to question her decisions of inclusion and exclusion as a storyteller. However, the film undeniably focuses on the most “entertaining” aspects: the torture, the explosions, etc. Indeed, these might be a crucial part of intelligence work, but there seems to be a disproportionate amount of attention on these elements.
Although there are details that could possibly inform viewers, the film has the tricky problem of being a fictionalized narrative based on real accounts that probably cannot be verified and did not even have to depicted accurately. To me, the relationship between fact and fiction in Zero Dark Thirty seems analogous to the issue of the uncanny valley. This is the idea that as a robot or animated figure approaches a lifelike image, it eventually becomes unsettling, so close and yet so soulless. (On 30 Rock, Frank explains the phenomenon to Tracy, who is at that point working on a pornographic video game.) Zero Dark Thirty has a similar problem. Ultimately, it does not have the tangible facts or journalistic accountability to be accepted as reality, but it is also too close to the real events to be easily embraced as fiction. If it seems that I’m thinking too much about all of this, that is precisely the problem. Zero Dark Thirty might depict serious issues with superficially intellectual rigor, but it is ultimately shallow, with no new layers to peal back on repeat viewings.
When the facts and fiction seem too messy, Zero Dark Thirty turns to Chastain’s Maya to anchor the drama. The Oscar-nominated actress mostly rises to the challenge. She offers a rich performance, especially powerful when she does not say much. What’s so disappointing is how on-the-nose the film is about her character’s non-life. Conversations with Ehle’s Jessica, Kyle Chandler’s Joseph Bradley and Gandolfini’s CIA director cast her all-consuming obsession in bold, capital letters. No, she doesn’t have any friends, and she wouldn’t flirt with a co-worker. Yes, she will start yelling in the hallway until she gets what she wants. And no, she has done nothing outside of this case. The movie is too insistent on underlining the purposeful underdevelopment of the character, instead of simply letting her actions and Chastain’s expressions speak for themselves. These scenes might not be as silly or reductive as the moment Clarke’s Dan loses his monkeys, but they certainly come close. The near-anonymity might be unconventional, but the redundancy is pure classical Hollywood storytelling.
The film sets up the character’s non-existence to represent the singular obsession with Osama or perhaps to offer Maya as a cipher onto which we can project our own post-9/11 anxieties. And it all culminates in that moving but frustratingly simplistic final shot of Chastain’s face. Maya’s inability to answer a simple question of where she is going falls in line with what the film has already made clear: She has no life outside of this decade-long hunt. Like The Hurt Locker, the film ends with a tacked-on moment of character insight, incongruous and seemingly disingenuous for a film more interested in process. It feels less like a heartfelt moment and more like an empty gesture towards profundity.
Or perhaps the final close-up can be read another way. The tear rolling down Maya’s face could very well suggest the futility of the search for Osama bin Laden. She went through all of this work, and for what? What is disappointing about this possibility is that it undermines the existence of the film in the first place. If the final shot is in fact meant to signal her dissatisfaction after it is all done, one starts to wonder why we had to sit for two and a half hours to reach such a conclusion.
Yes, the journey is often more important than the destination, but ultimately, this is the question I have been struggling with: What do I take away from this film? Zero Dark Thirty offers the semblance of ethical complexity but never digs past the surface in a way that resonates beyond a first viewing. It suggests a fascination with process, but possibly only as a means to set up the action scenes, Bigelow’s strength. And it gives us a wide cast of characters encountering political and moral issues at every turn, but none of them have the interiority or lives that would make these questions more vibrant than the headlines on an editorial page. The film takes the trouble to highlight Maya as a nonentity, but the people around her are equally empty. And the film simplistically suggests that if torture has a consequence for Americans, it is to relegate us as the oppressors to the hell of office work. There might be many issues to consider here, but the propulsive plotting of Zero Dark Thirty never gives us the space to consider them.
- Todd Kushigemachi
See Also: Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall