From its very beginning, Zero Dark Thirty presents itself as a hyper-realistic docudrama. The film begins in total darkness with only the recordings of 911 calls from the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001 blaring over the speakers. A deeply chilling tone established, it hurtles several years into the future and into the blazing hot sun of Pakistan, where heroine Maya (Jessica Chastain) has just arrived to join a team searching for any intelligence it can gather on al Qaeda and especially its leader, Osama bin Laden.
As you probably know by now, director Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker has received quite a bit of attention for its extensive depiction of torture -- aka "enhanced interrogation," if you're an Orwellian-inspired neo-con -- drawing criticism in some corners for glorifying the reprehensible tactic or, to some, even creating a false link between it and the intelligence that led a team of Navy SEALs to his hideout in a suburb of Islamabad, Pakistan.
It certainly wastes no time getting to the torture itself. Moments after Maya is introduced, she is shuttled from the bright Pakistani sun in to a cell at a black site where a colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) is pushing a detainee, Ammar, to his physical and psychological limits for any shred of information he might have on the world's most infamous terrorist organization. Dan uses all of the most notorious torture tactics you have heard of, and a few you probably haven't. He waterboards Ammar. He keeps him awake and standing for 96 straight hours with heavy metal music and ropes suspended from the ceiling. At one point, he forces him into cramped crate that doesn't seem like it could possibly fit an adult human being and closes it up. It's not quite stomach-churning stuff -- rather, there is a chilling dispassionateness to it all, which makes it all the more eerie and disturbing.
Maya is never really directly involved in the torture, instead waiting for a lull to ask the kind of questions that might lead her to bin Laden. There's no way you can infer that she's against it in any way, though. Her pursuit of bin Laden over the course of a decade is totally single-minded, and while you're free to read whatever you want into her at-times pained and pensive expressions, the fact remains that she's still there in the room with Dan, waiting for the unspeakable horrors to cease for a minute so she can pounce on detainee after detainee with a pointed question about Abu Ahmed, the mysterious character she correctly believes will lead her straight to bin Laden.
If you can't argue that Maya is in some way against torture, then, on the flip side, it's darn near as difficult to argue that Zero Dark Thirty is a total endorsement of the practice. For all the gut-wrenching torture, it's Maya's smarts, determination and a whole lot of hard work by her and her colleagues that lead to Abu Ahmed and eventually bin Laden. The detainee program and the shameful practices that came with it yield very little in terms of usable intelligence -- its role in bin Laden's death is virtually non-existent.
Bigelow's fence-sitting can be read in any number of ways, and simply making people think or confront ugly truths is part of the reason art gets created. I do sympathize with the Andrew Sullivans of the world, who find this moral indecisiveness a bit cowardly, but ultimately defensible. But I can't take a leap beyond that to where the people who are truly outraged by this film are.
I was most disconcerted by the lament for the loss of the detainee program expressed, most notably, by Dan as well as Maya's superiors Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) and George (Mark Strong) in the latter half of the film. Was I disconcerted because Bigelow herself was lamenting the loss of the program or because Chandler and Strong's real-life counterparts -- the people tasked with protecting this country and upholding its virtues -- would nod their heads in agreement with those sentiments? The answer seems obvious to me; of course it's the second thing and not the first. But Bigelow's deliberate ambiguity leaves her film open to any number of interpretations.
My own larger take is that, using the CIA's hunt for bin Laden in the years since 9/11, she has held up a mirror to this nation, kept it mostly steady and captured perfectly just how desperate and scared shitless Americans have been since that damnable day. Just like Maya, we've lived under a cloud of fear this past decade. Untold resources have been poured in to bringing down al Qaeda, spreading us perilously thin as a country. Just as bad, we've made ethical compromises in pursuit of that goal. We've achieved much of what we set out to, yes -- al Qaeda is considerably weaker than it once was and bin Laden is dead -- but the costs, both tangible and spiritual, are still being totaled and there's little satisfaction to be had.
Instead of satisfaction, there's merely relief for Maya as she is proven right, as the SEALs storm bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad in the film's toned-down climax, as she unzips the body bag at an airbase in Afghanistan and gazes upon bin Laden's corpse. If there's some better way to sum up this extraordinarily difficult time in which we've lived -- to better depict our still-shattered psyche -- I'd like to see it.
For me at least, Zero Dark Thirty continues Bigelow's surprise emergence as one of the best directors alive (though I don't think it should win Best Picture at next month's Oscars, I did find it to be better than The Hurt Locker) and it cements Jessica Chastain as a true acting heavyweight. I know all signs pointed that way vis a vis last year's performances in Tree of Life and The Help, but she's on another level in ZDT. Chastain's performance as Maya is so good that it eclipsed what is a quite tremendous cast (note that I'm 1,000 words in and I haven't so much as mentioned James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt or Mark Duplass yet). Blocking out that sort of starlight is reminiscent of another Oscar-nominated performance from the past year -- Daniel Day-Lewis' in Lincoln. Chastain brings something totally different to her character than Day-Lewis does to Abraham Lincoln, but it's no less commanding.