A dizzying blitz of descriptors surrounds Katheryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: pro-torture, anti-torture; anti-Bush, pro-Obama; mindlessly jingoistic, nuanced in its critique of American exceptionalism. The word “poetic” hasn’t yet been used; of course, we don’t associate images of raw, beaten flesh, and explosions tearing through bodies with anything remotely lyrical. And there is no beauty to be found in swollen lips vomiting up dirty water.
Yet there is a brutal symmetry between the film’s opening moments—a black screen, just the sounds of 911 calls from the smoking towers—and its denouement: the raid against the architect of their deaths, the killing that was meant to avenge them. These cinematic stanzas are punctuated with last gasps and desperate pleas. An office worker sobs to a 911 operator who can only advise her to calm down; just before the line cuts out, her voice gets impossibly small: “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” A decade later, in Abbottabad, a young girl cries “Daddy” through a volley of gunshots; her brothers and sisters weep and scream as combat boots thunder up stairwells.
Anyone who enters the theater expecting “Call of Duty: We Got Bin Laden” will be gravely disappointed with the somber, meditative film that unfurls in front of them. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t indulge in breathless reveling; it’s a brooding, muscular piece about obsession and vengeance. There are certainly very real, very vital questions about whether torture (we’re way past kidding ourselves with terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques”) should ever be employed; however, these are not questions that the movie’s characters—analysts and operatives, soldiers and guards—ever debate on-screen (or even internally). Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal treat torture through the vantage point of their protagonist, a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain): It is a means to an end. Detainees are water-boarded and rammed into hot boxes, but we’re standing on the side of the men and women holding the hoses, clicking the dog collars shut. And for them, it’s positively quotidian, par for the course. Dan, the agent who first schools Maya in “enhanced interrogation techniques,” downs an ice cream cone before setting to work (A guard quips, “You agency guys are twisted.”).
Various be-suited higher-ups pound their fists on conference tables and yell about protecting the homeland, yet the very first interrogation scene—the first real scene in the movie—immediately follows that black screen, the cries of doomed Americans. What we see next—a suspected al-Qaeda financier strung up from the ceiling—is about “gathering intelligence,” but it is also about punishment. “This,” Dan tells the financier, “is what defeat looks like.”
Though we are, as a nation, ostensibly engaged in a “war on terror,” we don’t often, as individuals (or, at least, civilians) feel particularly embattled (or even inconvenienced). Still, our history has, by and large, been divided into a before and after. Simone de Beauvoir, writing from a freshly-liberated, still-tattered France, wondered if vengeance could ever serve as restitution: “All of us have more or less felt it: the need to punish, to avenge ourselves … Is it well-founded? Can it be satisfied?”
These are clearly not questions that Maya, a feminine exemplar of Eastwoodian grit, loses sleep over. At one point, then-CIA director Leon Panetta (a rumpled, weary James Gandolfini) asks her if, in her twelve years with the agency, she’s done anything other than search for bin Laden. “No,” she says, simply, forcefully. She is singular in her pursuit, an arrow shot from a taut bow. But Maya is no hero; she is, as she tells Panetta, “the motherfucker” who found bin Laden’s compound, and it is this identity—not the “God and country” invoked by the Navy Seal who calls in bin Laden’s death—that compels her. When a suicide bomber murders her only real friend, a slow-talking Southerner who bakes a birthday cake for an al-Qaeda operative she hopes to flip as an asset, Maya vows to “smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden.”
A national grievance is writ small, making the partisan hoopla over Zero Dark Thirty’s original pre-election release date particularly insipid. President Obama only appears as a talking head on a TV screen, promising that, “America doesn’t torture” with what seems, in hindsight, to be a willful naiveté. We all know that Gitmo doesn’t close. We all know about the drones.
However, the film’s amended December-January release situates it in an oddly appropriate cultural moment, one in which a spate of very public crimes—a murder that Indian authorities didn’t prosecute until the country exploded in protest; the gang-rape of a sixteen-year-old that Ohio authorities simply buried until Anonymous intervened—has challenged us to decide if we can sleep at night knowing that our peace of mind was delivered “by any means necessary.”
The street rioting in India and online vigilantism of Anonymous has, arguably, yielded results: arrests have been made and conspirators have been shamed. Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya might say that her interrogations serve a similar purpose. She’d also likely agree with de Beauvoir’s assertion that, “one hates only men, not because they are material causes of material damage, but because they are conscious authors of genuine evil.” Or, as a commenter on a Huffington Post piece condemning the film, succinctly put it: “I have no sympathy for torture. Then again, I have no sympathy for the people being tortured.”
Though it’s structured like a traditional procedural, Zero Dark Thirty is a shifting inkblot of a film: A myriad of meanings float up from its white spaces. A battered detainee refuses to yield information about an attack in London: Days later, on July 7, 2005, a series of coordinated suicide bombings will kill fifty-two people. Just before we’re able to knit a tidy conclusion about the ineffectiveness of such brutality, the filmmakers pivot: Once ninety-six hours of sleep deprivation has weakened the detainee, Maya is able to trick him into giving up the name of bin Laden’s courier; this is the lead that pitches her down the rabbit hole, until she emerges again on a desert air field, watching twin helicopters rise toward Pakistan.
Those of us who might not normally support violence or vigilantism have, perhaps, felt a moment of pause, a slowness to condemn the Indian rioters or Anonymous; perhaps this is because they’re striking out against laws and cultures that have, so oppressively, so systematically, denied so many vulnerable people any semblance of justice, or hope. But Maya and her cohorts aren’t shattering any paradigms—they’re cogs in a government wheelhouse. “I want targets,” bellows one of the top brass. “Do your fucking jobs. Bring me people to kill.” Yet the movie’s most chilling line of dialogue isn’t a threat, it’s a bit of banter between co-workers: “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”
Maya may or may not be the last one holding a dog collar, but she is, above all else, a woman alone. Chastain endows her with an artic reserve that is compelling, not inscrutable. She is, at times, astoundingly arrogant: screaming in the face of a section chief who asks her to redirect her energies toward preventing another attack, not hunting bin Laden; haranguing another higher-up who can’t get the White House to okay a raid fast enough for her liking; telling the Navy Seal squad leader that she’d have preferred to bomb the compound, but that he and his team will have to “kill bin Laden for me.” Yet she is still very much a young twentysomething with a photo of her and her friend as her screensaver; there is underbelly beneath the brittleness. Hours before her fellow citizens will swarm the streets, singing “God Bless America,” Maya sits alone, crying. Her tears are not of exhaustion, or even relief; her face breaks open with loss.
De Beauvoir cautioned her countrymen against believing that they could ever find succor in vengeance. The common refrain of the aggrieved, “they must pay,” betrays a desire for a “balancing of wrongs,” to see their aggressors suffer a comparable horror. This is a truth born out in Bigelow’s bravura staging of that May raid, especially the claustrophobic effect of shooting in night vision. The sickening intimacy of the sequences—tight huddles of men charging narrow stairways, narrow rooms—makes the whole endeavor seem small. There’s no grand, cathartic showdown, no real firefight. There is only a man poking his head out of a room before he’s shot between the eyes. There is nothing that could conjure back 3,000 lives and bring them, like Lazarus, out of the rubble.