When I was a senior in high school my first history assignment of the year was an essay on my summer reading, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The prompt had to do with analyzing and comparing the moral message in each book and I looked down at my paper and thought, “Well, fuck.” 45 minutes and counting. You see, I was convinced it was a trick question. It didn’t make sense to me. What morality? Morality isn’t present in these darn books! I then took my first leap into what I like to call the “lol imma ignore this prompt and tell you that it’s actually this instead” technique – which became a trend of mine for the rest of my academic career. Aced that essay, btw.
After Zero Dark Thirty ended its sweeping 2 hour and 37 minute run, I immediately thought of that essay. I’m sure everyone has been aware of the media storm surrounding the film and the torture question being debated by everyone from bloggers to senators. If not, what are you doing and get a Twitter account already!
The film opens with torture. The entire first act is rife with it. I’m not someone who is easily disturbed by anything I see on film, and I was upset. I was uncomfortable. But I was meant to be. It wasn’t an endorsement, it wasn’t a censure. It just was. Are we, as citizens, so blind as to really believe that the CIA operates on some pedestal of morality and goodness and extreme super-hero like capabilities so as to never interrogate detainees under duress? And are we really to believe that it is so black and white that we can either say it never works or it always works?
In The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Alec Leamas becomes so lost in the grey, blurred lines of the job that it almost seems as if there are no sides, there is only the job. How then does he retain his loyalty to England, his perspective? It is not through any sort of moral mandate. England’s secret intelligence operated on the same levels as did the Soviet’s. It is the responsibility one takes when joining an agency such as MI-5 or the CIA to operate in between these blurred lines so that the rest of us may tuck ourselves in at night with our values and morals intact.
I suppose that’s why Zero Dark Thirty is so controversial. As a nation we have trouble accepting that there are some areas where the clear distinction between right and wrong just doesn’t apply. This film makes that statement. This film remains impartial, devoid of any message other than, “this is how it is, this is the way it works.” Does it glorify torture? Jfc, if you see the movie you know full well that it doesn’t. It makes you uncomfortable for a damn reason. Does is make the argument that torture elicits truthful and useful information? Maybe, maybe not. The detainee that gives Maya (Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clark) the main lead that sets them up for the seven year hunt for bin Laden has been tortured. But he does not give them this information while being tortured. He gives it up over a meal, after a bath, whilst sitting in the open air at a table. I’m not sure what it all means, if there’s even a distinction there. But that’s the point. The psychological damage, inflicted upon the detainees and very overtly reflected upon the interrogators themselves is presented as an emotional war wound necessary in this fight.
These CIA operatives are the most intelligent and fearless minds and bodies our nation has to offer, and yet they must torture a man. The teams on the ground are experts in conducting espionage within enemy territory and yet they must be prepared to kill civilians that give them trouble. The military men who are without a doubt heroes, and beautifully efficient in their craft, must be prepared to murder a child’s parents in front of him.
Such is the nature of the job and the heavy hand of responsibility that comes with fighting an underground global war.
And it is one we see the film’s heroine, Maya, grow into. At first meek, seemingly troubled by the reality of the job, but nevertheless understanding its necessity, the audience sees her develop through the years into an expert and hardened interrogator. It is a subtle, enthralling transformation. Maya enters the film as an enigma, arriving in Pakistan and that’s about it. All the other characters know, and all we know, is that she’s young but “Washington says she’s a killer.”
The beautiful, almost poetic thing about Maya’s character leading us through the heavy plot is that we see her turn into the obsessive, determined agent it was necessary to become in order to see the job through. What’s masterful is that the film doesn’t give her a back story about a broken family life or personal demons to justify her determination. It doesn’t try to tell us why she is the way she is. It doesn’t make her emotional, troubled or even damaging in her obsession. She is her job and that’s that. We get the sense that she’s lonely, brilliant, driven, but we don’t know where that comes from and it doesn’t matter. We know her through the meticulous attention she gives her work, and that’s engaging enough.
This is a new kind of action film. It is hyper political in the sense that it is factual (this ain’t no Abu Nazir okayyyy?). It is stunning in its lack of agenda. And it is presenting to us a new form of feminism in film. The kind of feminism is which a woman doesn’t need to be explained. The kind where she can be determined just because. She was recruited by the CIA after all, it’s just who she is, no extraneous information necessary.
That isn’t to say that Maya is a robot. Though her determination is her through line and she remains grounded by that, she still has to assert herself. An explosive scene between her and her station chief, played by Kyle Chandler, may well win her the Oscar. She has to make herself memorable in a room full of Langley suits. “I’m the motherfucker that found this place,” she says and it’s awesome. She’s shaken when her colleagues are targeted, or when she herself is.
Casting Jessica Chastain was a bold choice that paid off handsomely. Her beauty and her soft, almost girly voice isn’t what you expect to lead you through the hunt for Osama bin Laden. A hunt that spans years, countries, and vast political changes.
The action and plot itself is riveting, thanks to the combination of Bigelow’s taut and suspenseful directing and Boal’s equally taut script. They navigate a film with immense scope almost effortlessly, without losing steam or their viewers. They excel at telling a story with such omniscience that I still haven’t figured out why Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t present itself as detached. It isn’t, of course, but such subtle filmmaking can easily be misrepresented as cold.
One thing I didn’t expect was the presence of “chapters”, introducing the next section of the film. I’m unsure they were needed and they may well have slowed the film’s momentum down a little too much for my liking. It gave off the impression that the film was hard to structure, and things got a little messy. Still not bad for the one glaring detractor.
Nearing the third act, I daresay it’s impossible to not be on the edge of your seat while the raid takes place. It’s fascinating to see such a detailed re-creation of events we all heard about on the news. It plays out similarly to the final sequence of Argo in that it manages to create such tension and suspense despite the fact that the outcome is so widely known. Though unlike Argo, the raid on the compound and the killing of Osama bin Laden isn’t as triumphant as it is ambivalent and somewhat unsettling. Like the entirety of the film, we support the endgame and hail it as a triumph, but the steps taken for that endgame are not nearly as elevating.
The final scene is striking in how simplistically and overtly it shows this ambivalence. Osama bin Laden is dead. What now? Does it make it better? Are we healed? Are we validated? Are we avenged? It applies both to Maya’s character and on a larger contextual basis.
After so long, what now?