It is difficult to review a film like Zero Dark Thirty without referring to the controversy and evaluating where one stands on it. The pro-torture/ propaganda debate has stuck so tightly to Kathryn Bigelow’s film that it is difficult even to watch the film without constantly questioning it.
The plot is known by now. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a new CIA recruit straight out of school. She doesn’t make many friends, at least initially, but she does very quickly take control of her own lead in the hunt for Osama bin Laden – his suspected courier Abu Ahmed. The film represents her determined eight-year (from 2003, when she assists in her first torture to 2011 when bin Laden is killed) hunt.
The film opens with a sequence of telephone calls coming out of the World Trade Center on 9/11. This sequence is obviously harrowing. The film then cuts directly to the first of two extended torture sequences, in which Maya is broken in by a CIA interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) as he tortures Ammar (Reda Kateb). She passes Dan the bucket of water that he needs for waterboarding. There have been a lot of complaints about this scene, not least of all being the quick juxtaposition of 9/11 and torture seemingly suggesting that the one provides justification for the other. However, this is a little too simple a reading. First of all, when we first move into the torture chamber, it is not entirely clear who is who before Dan begins his monologue. We see a series of people wearing balaclavas, including, as it is later revealed, Maya. The balaclavas suggest that the interrogators are themselves terrorists before Dan makes it clear who is who. As well as this, the film does not sugarcoat the torture itself, though it isn’t nearly as drawn out and horrible as it is in the much more obviously critical Route Irish. It is uncomfortable viewing and Ammar’s screams are a lot more effective and moving than Maya’s short-lived queasiness. The true horror of the scene is that the torturers are people with a job that needs done and, to them, Ammar is a lead, not a human being.
There are many instances in which Bigelow represents the hunt for bin Laden as a dehumanising act. Dan is able to befriend a cage of monkeys when right next to them is a cage of humans. Maya scans through a series of interrogation DVDs, showing a host of detainees with potential leads rather than a series of images of human suffering. Later, she will blithely watch footage of a drone strike without a hint of a blink when a blast destroys two vehicles. No one talks about capturing bin Laden or of putting him on trial. They only speak of killing him, making him merely a target, like all the rest of the black and white images on the walls. With the CIA Director (James Gandolfini), all of the talk is off probabilities – the raid on the compound is discussed in terms of the likelihood of its failure rather than in terms of its human cost. When bin Laden, or UBL in technical abbreviation, is finally shot dead, we never see his face and his killing is rightly anti-climatic. The soldiers are immediately more interested in taking the hard drives from the computers and, back at the base, the collection of hard drives – which, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out in his thoughtful piece on the film, will only serve to perpetuate the War on Terror - is given more attention than the body in the bag. However, though the hunt is presented as dehumanising, there is barely a suggestion from the film itself that this is particularly a bad thing.
Similarly, the film shows that the toll that the hunt takes on the CIA personnel itself. Dan is eventually burned out from too much torture, his line, “You don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” being one of the most hateful lines in the film. Jessica’s (Jennifer Ehle) own hunt leads her to her grave due entirely to her willingness to trust a lead. Joseph (Kyle Chandler) is forced to walk away from the operation after so many years, unfulfilled and unrewarded, due to an unfortunate protest. Maya cries at the end of the film, either because she recognises that her determination and success has not made anything better or because of her sheer relief at it finally being over. Either way, she has no idea where to go now. Bigelow makes sure to humanise the CIA personnel, which makes for a slightly awkward situation in which the film allows only one side of the battle to be sympathetic. As accurate as this may be in terms of what modern warfare is like, it still leads to difficult sequences in which the music turns sinister every time we see a tanned, bearded face. By dehumanising one side of the conflict and humanising another, Bigelow risks merely perpetuating that very dehumanisation.
Bigelow seems to be primarily interested in the determination of the CIA personnel during the hunt for bin Laden. That is one of the things that she is not afraid to show. However, there is a lot that she is afraid to show.
Bigelow herself makes clear that Zero Dark Thirty is drama, not propaganda. But her choices, or more accurately her omissions, betray that statement. Bigelow shows people who are determined, but she does not show people struggling with the morality or immorality of their actions. She shows the camaraderie and fear of the soldiers who attack bin Laden’s compound but she does not really show the same for their counterparts. She follows the vicious shooting of a man and a woman by the American soldiers with a scene in which one of the soldiers comforts some crying children with, “It’s OK. It’s OK.” However, it clearly isn’t OK, since these children have just had their parents murdered right in front of them. Ultimately, what Bigelow does not do is judge, something that is ordinarily fine since audiences are clever enough to come up with their own opinions, but she does allow a scene in which one of the soldiers wanders around the house, clearly upset by the bloodshed. Is Bigelow suggesting that Americans can be as pseudo-fascist as they want because they will always feel kind of bad about it afterwards?
Another problem is timing. Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011. Zero Dark Thirty premiered in December 2012. The film follows the events so closely that it has absolutely no historical perspective. We are left with a film that follows the hunt for bin Laden in incredible detail but without any ability to show how important or unimportant this operation ultimately was. In her wrong headed attempt at reportage, Bigelow does not openly criticize American actions in the Middle East but merely presents them, albeit fictionally. What we are left with then is a horrible and really rather boring procedural about some deeply troubling real world events, which is deeply uncomfortable to watch but does not express an opinion. In this sense, it is one of the most facile and cowardly films that America has produced in recent years.
Is Zero Dark Thirty a disturbing glimpse at what the West has become? Is it a contempible and/or dangerous piece of propaganda, promoting the capabilities of a less than effective CIA or the virtues of America’s militaristic foreign policy? Does it suggest that torture works? It is difficult to conclusively answer any of these questions until time has passed. It could turn out that Zero Dark Thirty will be the first in a new series of films celebrating the CIA’s part in killings all around the world. Or maybe some day the CIA will orchestrate a mass genocide, the outcry from which will lead to a radical reassessment of recent American history. If either case occurs, where will Zero Dark Thirty and Kathryn Bigelow stand then? The most likely eventuality seems to be that this dirty, little film will be scorned as one of those films that stood by and refused to criticize at a time when reasoned criticism was most necessary. Zero Dark Thirty might not offer an opinion, but when it comes to American foreign policy, military assaults, the CIA and torture surely an opinion is what is needed most and Zero Dark Thirty’s stoic lack of one is the reason it is dangerous.