Bright Lights Film Journal

Zero Dark Thirty: Simple-Mindedness Dressed Up as Moral Complexity or Artistic Vagueness

“Does it all come down to the injustice of 3,000 people dying on 9/11? But at some level everybody went through that. Yet few of us thereafter felt the need to cast off every other human part of ourselves in order to find ‘justice,’ whatever that means in such contexts.”

“Card’s on the table,” as the heroine of Joan Didion’s novel Play It as It Lays occasionally intones. Procedural crime dramas — and that’s what director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty pretty much is — always have a tendency to put me, despite myself, on the side of criminals. I can never identify with the dedicated policeman who glibly ignores laws and rights, doggedly intent on getting his man. Usually I find myself hoping that the murderer will somehow escape down expressionistic sewers to kill again. Zero Dark Thirty, the story of CIA agent Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) obsessive hunt for Al-Qaeda ringleader Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11th attacks, is just about the most extreme version of this I’ve ever experienced, because the film is so long and because there’s no real suspense: we know how it all ends — after a ten-year search Osama bin Laden is located and assassinated by the U.S. government. This gives one time (lots of time; it is two and a half hours long) to wonder at the thinness of the characterizations, even by procedural crime drama standards, and to disbelieve much of what we see; to quibble with turns of events and reactions of characters.1 Even without the controversy concerning whether or not the movie supports torture (and I’m in the camp that thinks it does), Zero Dark Thirty would still have seemed to me just another of the grim self-serious thrillers and comic-bookers that now regularly march past audiences characters so wised up to the world’s depravity they must ultimately acclimate themselves to a career based deep in the exotic heartland of situational ethics, more or less fully squared off and justified for easy consumption.

Before I get into the movie’s torture ideology, though, what about the movie as a movie? It has the by now familiar steely look, sickly techno-greenish tinges for stark action, and the jittery (or “gritty”) shaky camera we’ve come to know and hate in some of the Bourne movies, complete with a swirl of jargonate references meant to wow one by its insider’s view of intelligence. For extra added dramatic effect the camera often crawls up on top of people’s faces. At least Zero isn’t as confused as Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was, or as inadvertently racist. Still, keeping the various locations, names, and missions straight can be difficult — afterward one may have a hard time explaining where particular events were supposed to have taken place or how one event led to the next. Therefore, despite the movie’s sprawling length, it feels clipped and underwritten, especially the role of Maya. Now a great actor can often convert a parsimonious screenplay into something shaded and fascinating, even if it’s littered with clichés; Chastain with her fire-red hair, pale skin, intense eyes, and spiritually gaunt cheekbones nearly pulls off this trick. Not since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has an actor given stony determination such a startling mixture of alert toughness and vulnerability, but at least Ripley had a dead daughter rattling around in her background to work with. Chastain’s Maya has nothing, just her need to search for bin Laden. There is a moment when the CIA director (James Gandolfini) sits down to lunch with her, trying to decide whether or not her absolute certainty that Laden is hiding out in a compound in Pakistan is right or cracked. She tells him she was recruited for the agency out of high school. He asks, “Do you know why we recruited you?” She responds “I don’t think I’m allowed to say,” and we realize that we, the audience, are never going to be told what really motivates her to spend twelve years doing nothing, as she tells him, but look for bin Laden. Does it all come down to the injustice of 3,000 people dying on 9/11? But at some level everybody went through that. Yet few of us thereafter felt the need to cast off every other human part of ourselves in order to find “justice,” whatever that means in such contexts. And why didn’t the revelations of the WMD fraud and the horrors out of Abu Ghraib or, well, anything challenge this woman’s views? Also, they had some chick out of high school hunting down Osama bin Laden? Though Chastain herself is quite convincing, the part isn’t, even if she’s supposed to be based on a real person. She has no hobbies, no love interests, no friends, at first, nothing. She’s a pop procedural cliché of a character, a solemn stalwart married to her job; she is her job and nothing else. In shows and movies of this type, we’re meant to admire such shells their suffering intensity, their hundred-percent dedication to their craft. While we’re also supposed to see that they are being slowly consumed by their inability to separate from the horrors of their work, this only means they care more than other people about justice and to hell with everything else the rest of us mediocre clods scrabble after. As in The Hurt Locker, though, there’s a mismatch between what screenwriter Mark Boal claims he means to say about his characters — that they’re dedicated but screwed up — and what the viewer comes away with, that is, the characters’ emotional emptiness being essentially glamorized. Their nose-to-the-grindstone neuroses gives them gravitas; makes them seem courageous and daring in a way audiences dream they could be too, ignoring dark implications that go essentially undramatized.

While Maya has been provided with a sense of purpose, unlike the Jeremy Renner character in Locker — adrenaline was his reward — I suspect most viewers will come away from Zero thinking that Renner had more going on behind his behavior than Maya does, because there’s so little Chastain’s Maya actually discovers about herself on the way to bin Laden’s eventual murder. Maya may be the least conflicted character one is ever likely to meet in film or television. Even Buffy Somers in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, who fought actual hell-spawn demon monsters, eventually began to question what all the death and killing was doing to her. Maya has no such comic book quibbles, because The War on Terrorism is righteous. 9/11 seems to be a trauma the mass consciousness still hasn’t quite worked its way through to all the lies and corruption of the American government following and, frankly, preceding, which makes this film, like The Hurt Locker or the earlier faked-up Three Kings, so ultimately offensive in its trajectory. The only character who gives this movie any real pause is the CIA agent Dan, brilliantly played by Jason Clarke. He manages to be both threatening and oddly sympathetic; his sunken, black-ringed eyes tell us that the “work” he does breaking detainees is taking real a toll on him. At one point Maya, unable to get a recently acquired prisoner to tell her about “Abu Ahmed,” bin Laden’s personal courier, who eventually led the U.S. to bin Laden’s lair, asks Dan if he’d mind roughing up the suspect a little for her; he refuses, saying he’s tired of seeing naked men, wants to head back to the states and do something more normal, especially as the legality of the CIA’s methods is coming under more scrutiny — his slightly sickened, cover-your-ass view of things is about as close as this film ever gets to questioning how the government hunted down Al-Qaeda’s leaders. After which I entirely lost sympathy for Maya and began perversely hoping she would get fired or killed or something.

How we, the audience, view Maya goes hand in hand with whether or not we think the movie supports and justifies torture, I suspect. The critics who like the movie say it very clearly demonstrates that torture doesn’t work, shows U.S. efforts as a kind of terrible waste. At one point Maya is told “Abu Ahmed,” the courier she’s looking for, is dead and buried; later she discovers that actually he’s alive, is really named “Ibrahim Sayeed,” has several brothers who sort of look like him, and they’ve been searching for the man using the wrong picture. More importantly, this information has been in the files since shortly after 9/11 and was lost in all the hysteria, along with a barrage of other information. Meaning, these critics think, the torture is shown to be essentially unnecessary. This is just wrong, though. While torture itself doesn’t lead directly to bin Laden the movie is certainly not saying all the torture filling up the film’s first forty minutes didn’t help or was in any way incorrect. Though “Sayeed’s” real picture and name might have put Maya on the right track earlier, it’s debatable, I think, whether or not that would have provided her the network of connections she discovered between terrorists, underscoring “Sayeed’s” importance and pointing at bin Laden’s whereabouts. I’m not talking here about real life, but how the movie doles out the story.

Mostly, though, it’s the way the characters are placed in the action and the attitudes they display toward what they do that winds up giving one a pro-torture sense of things. In the beginning of the movie, Maya watches, face covered, as Dan works over a suspect, Ammar al-Baluchi (Reda Kateb). Outside she removes her stocking mask — we’re meant to gasp: a woman’s involved with this? She appears to be a little shaken but not all that upset. She’s so strong-stomached, in fact, she insists on going back in and watching without re-covering her face: first sign we’re meant to respect the character — she does her own dirty work. Only two or three shots show us she’s troubled by the violence she witnesses; out of necessity she smothers these reactions and they never surface again. The treatment of Ammar represents most of the characterization of Maya we’re to be given, so it’s dragged out over several scenes; brought to a head by showing us how hard-headed Maya becomes. At least I think that was the purpose for this stuff. The script’s so frugal with her responses she doesn’t actually seem to change much. Anyway, after Ammar has been waterboarded, beaten between scenes, tied up with ropes so he can’t lay down, kept in the dark for hours with heavy metal music blasting him constantly so he can’t think or sleep, had a collar put around his neck, been dragged about like a dog, had his pants stripped in front of Maya to humiliate him — he begs Maya for help when left alone with her a moment. Very calmly she tells him he can help himself by being truthful and sits down to watch the action — imagine if Michael J. Fox had been this serenely complicit in Casualties of War. (One should note, even though there’s a lot of torture in the movie, to anyone familiar with Jane Mayer2 or documentaries like Taxi to the Dark Side or Standard Operating Procedure and many others, the detainee abuse depicted here is still pretty cleaned up.) Several years then pass. The way the movie’s edited suggests Maya goes right on torturing the whole time. We see her having soldiers smack detainees. We see her watching videos of prisoners who have presumably been tortured, taking down what they say without batting an eye. The film gives us, of course, one or two ticking time bomb type scenarios to jack up the stakes, and Maya and Dan indulge in some supposedly clever tricks to get info, which puts Maya on the track to Ahmed-Sayeed, but I didn’t believe any of it. Only one peculiar scene toward the middle of the film puts a big question mark over the action: Barack Obama gets in office and Maya and some of her coworkers see the president on television saying that America does not torture. A troubled look crosses Maya’s face (like she’s being cut off at the knees is how it struck me), after which she and everybody else simply go on with their business, making no remark. It’s unsettling because we don’t really know how we’re meant to take it, what this says about these characters. I’m afraid the point may be that Obama and America in general have somehow hypocritically betrayed agents like her, brave enough to dirty themselves in the mucky trenches, benefitting a country that turns around and condemns them for the good job they do — but who can be sure with drama this smothered and sublimated?

I heard Bigelow in an interview on the torture question saying that maybe people had a hard time seeing that her film didn’t actually support torture because they wanted her to have a character spell it out in no uncertain terms, spoon-feed them what they should have been able to determine themselves was her attitude, but this is really too rich. From Hamlet to MacBeth to Humbert Humbert to Alex in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange — the audience is compelled to contemplate the moral consequences of characters’ actions by the characters contemplating what they do. Not only does Maya never question herself (even after she learns the CIA had crucial information before all the torture), as I said, but the way the movie’s been structured she doesn’t really need to: she’s always right about everything. She and Dan are so smart and professional they instinctively know the detainees they beat up are lying; never make mistakes, even though we in fact know that mostly what was made were mistakes. If for a couple of scenes you’re bothered by what Maya’s does, Bigelow and screenwriter Boal make sure to have Maya nearly blown up in a restaurant by a terrorist bomb; they kill off her recently made friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) in an awkwardly structured bit that gives itself away with obvious crosscutting; have her almost get shot to death in her car (I personally cheered), thereby sanding the moral edges off the proceedings and making her look super tough for soldiering on with her mission. After a devastating terrorist action, a CIA higher-up (Mark Strong) — whom she none too credibly antagonizes publicly in the latter parts of the movie for dragging his heels on going after bin Laden — gives his agents seated round a table something like Alec Baldwin’s famous “Always Be Closing” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross, telling them they need to start coming up with kill lists fast; of course, this incentivization to murder never goes wrong — with people as competent as Maya and the folks at the CIA, well, how could it?

One note of real ambivalence in Maya’s character does come after bin Laden’s finally killed, though even that feels pat. The last thirty minutes of the movie are devoted to the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, probably the best part. We have the confusion, the Navy Seals (bearded manly boys to a number) blandly shooting every male they come across; we have screaming women and children, files being raided, computers being smashed — this cool high-tech destruction and the backslapping that follows are definitely creepy, just about the only stuff in Zero that made me feel much of anything. Afterward, in Afghanistan, Maya ID’s bin Laden’s body (weirdly there’s no mention of the DNA confirmation or disposal of his body in the ocean), and, at sunset of course, she boards a military transport to leave the area. She is asked where she wants to go. She says nothing; stares; a few tears course her cheeks; she continues to say nothing; she stares some more; and the screen goes black. Now that bin Laden is gone, she has nothing left to do, nowhere to go. It’s a little like the end of The Hurt Locker, where Renner’s character had only the war to live for and so redeploys to Iraq to get away from the unsettling calm of his family and himself. One can assume that Maya will be doing the same. I can’t help wondering, does anybody really believe in Maya or this self-serving version of the 9/11 saga? When will people see past the Twin Towers and realize we’ve been had, thereby opening up a new era of paranoid nightmare films about the monsters we’ve become, or at least show how all this madness has degraded us? Instead, for more than ten years now, what we’ve been getting are these annoying, cheesy vengeance fables (no different really than The Dark Knight or the latest Gerard Butler actioner in outlook) with clean lines and sharp corners, pretending to be messy. Good guys hit by the bad guys have to hit back even harder, never mind “bending” a few rules, which the bad guys just hide behind with impunity anyway. These movies never ask the question: if American values mean anything, then is it really justifiable to claim that living by those standards even in the face of dangerous enemies is only for infantile naifs and suckers? What does that say about all we supposedly hold dear? It would have been more appropriate if Zero Dark Thirty had ended with shots of college students after the news of bin Laden’s death came out, chanting “USA, USA, USA!” to alert us to the fact we’re merely passing through a fool’s paradise, and one that’s anti-climactic to boot.

  1. During this year’s Oscar season, the excellent PRI/BBC program The World featured a story on the way Pakistanis viewed the film’s “accuracy,” mentioning that the Pakis in it were made to speak Arabic rather than Urdu or English, their native tongues; and that people walking the streets wore not the clothes of modern citizens, but garb from the nineteenth century: http://www.theworld.org/2013/02/zero-dark-thirty-pakistan/ []
  2. See Mayer’s book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story on how The War on Terror turned into a War on American Ideals (Anchor books, 2009). Also see Mayer’s New Yorker blog response to Zero Dark Thirty: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/12/torture-in-kathryn-bigelows-zero-dark-thirty.html Champions of the movie probably won’t be convinced by this piece, because Mayer’s interpretation of the early Ammar torture sequences is slightly off. Jason Parker’s character, Dan, inflicts much nastiness on Ammar trying to get him to give up the where and when of an impending attack. Dan even puts him into a tiny wood box, yet the terrorist still refuses to cough up the information; a bomb soon after explodes. However, Maya and Dan just pretend that Ammar did tell them what they wanted; believing this, because his short-term memory is so screwed up from all the torture, he then disburses to Maya the names of all his cohorts, including bin Laden’s courier, putting Maya on her merry way to tracking bin Laden down. Pro-Zero critics cite this example as showing that the torture didn’t really work, or wasn’t the main source of intelligence gathering, that softer tactics ultimately prevailed, conveniently forgetting the fact they only did so because all the previous torture had softened up Ammar’s short-term memory. But even if one were inclined to quibble with Mayer’s readings of certain moments in the movie, one can hardly argue with her charges that the filmmakers have almost entirely distorted the debate surrounding the ethics and efficacy of torture — meaning they’ve been left out. []