The screen is black. Live phone calls from the September 11th attacks, which as we know were orchestrated by the terrorist Osama Bin Laden, are playing over the speakers. People are screaming and the cacophonous sounds build and build. Everyone in the audience squirms uncomfortably, and everyone thinks about where they were that day.
The 9/11 attacks were unquestionably traumatic for everyone, but everyone remembers them differently, and in the 11 years following everyone has since reacted differently. Kathryn Bigelow[i] knows this, and in her most recent film, Zero Dark Thirty, she speaks to the multiplicity of public opinion in the wake.
Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece in the procedural genre. Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece in the war film genre. Zero Dark Thirty is Kathryn Bigelow’s best film to date; she’s 61 year old director and is now better than ever. Most of all, Zero Dark Thirty is an important film that is a direct reflection of the way Americans view their tragedies, their wars, and their victories.
This film is also the sort of art that a lot of people are going to dislike for various reasons. Some people with more liberal points-of-view dissuade viewers from watching this film because they believe it depicts torture as a valid method that allowed the United States to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. Other liberals find the film too jingoistic. On the other side, conservatives accuse the film for having an anti-military liberal agenda that gives Seal Team Six a sinister vibe. Or, as many conservative politicians have, they can call out the film for its torture by being too loose on the facts and making the United States look bad. Before the film was even released, conservatives claimed the film would have been pro-Barack Obama propaganda, but they’ve backed off of that claim having now seen the film. Everyone was out for blood before the movie ever came out[ii].
No doubt, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal fudged some facts. The film is a fictional one after all, only based on fact. It claims a sense of journalistic integrity, and the film’s biggest weakness thus far has been its inability to separate itself from its journalistic pretentions. Boal was a journalist before he wrote The Hurt Locker, which was an insightful look into its protagonist (fantastically realized by actor Jeremy Renner) whose PTSD runs congruently with his daredevil personality. That character needed thrills to stay alive, and most people took Boal/Bigelow/Renner’s depiction of the War on Terror as a cultural milestone in artistically understanding our current wars. Most agreed that this film felt authentic. But Zero Dark Thirty has been leveled with numerous accusations.
Zero Dark Thirty has been met with much acclaim by critics, winning many critics awards, and it has already matched The Hurt Locker at the box office with only 2 weeks in wide-release. It has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. There is a loud minority that is drowning out the film’s successes with accusations of faulty journalism and propagandist filmmaking. Again, while Zero Dark Thirty is foggy on some of its journalistic endeavors, those naysayers are missing the point widely by calling it propaganda. And that goes to either side of the political debate—liberal or conservative. The Hurt Locker was first great film on the Iraq War / Afghanistan War / War on Terror trifecta, but now Zero Dark Thirty is now the second, regardless of what the naysayers say.
To rebut these negative claims, I point everyone’s direction to Bigelow’s direction and the films quality. With her cinematographer (Greig Fraser), editors (William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor), and composer (the great and busy Alexandre Desplat who also scored Argo and Moonrise Kingdom this year), she crafts a movie that burrows its way deep into the audience’s brains. Desplat’s score is brooding and contemplative and never triumphant. In the raid scene, where Seal Team Six finally get to Bin Laden and assassinate him, its hums disturbingly low, barely registering at times, instead of playing “our boys” home as heroes. Meanwhile, the editors flawlessly pace the movie, cutting concise scenes for such a strong procedural and then frantically amping up the tension when we actually get to the raid scene.
And then there is Fraser’s cinematography. The key to many of the film’s shots are the reflections of the actors’ faces—especially Maya’s, who is played by the multi-talented Jessica Chastain. Whether they are reflected off of windows, rear-view mirrors, or the glass on frames holding American flags, they hold immense meaning. Any great cinematic shot is rife with meaning and interpretation. Here, the shots are filled with intentional introspection by Fraser and Bigelow. We in the audience, and mostly as Americans, are supposed to be reflecting on the entire manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. We have to ask questions.
Do we accept torture, even if it didn’t actually land us Bin Laden, as a method of saving lives? The torture depicted in the film is grotesque and in ways makes the audience sympathize with the terrorist being tortured. He is a man, and he can break like any man. Maya watches as interrogators do their jobs as assigned, and gain information on future terrorist attacks and possibly even the location of important Al Qaeda operatives. She sees the ugliness of these acts, the immorality—it sickens her—but she doesn’t even attempt to stop them, because she wants the information to the location of Bin Laden. Whether torture was effective or not, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t take sides. Was it morally right? The lines are drawn thickly here and again the film doesn’t say. That is the biggest sin anyone can commit to some, by staying amoral on the issue. But it isn’t amoral on the issue; the film is, again, asking us to look at ourselves and ask, “Was this right?”
Was it right to spend so much money in the hunt for one man? Maya is criticized for the failures to find Bin Laden. Was it right to spend the lives of human soldiers and CIA agents in the hunt for one man? Maya loses a close friend in the hunt, which affects her deeply. But it doesn’t dissuade her; it only intensifies her desire to kill him. The procedural aspect of Zero Dark Thirty is expertly executed, following Maya’s very personal journey for catharsis, as we as a nation demand. Maya is not the “girl who fucks.” She is completely obsessed with her job. An expert detective with Sherlock-esque intuition, Maya succeeds about two-thirds through the movie, through her talent, her stubbornness, and even some happenstance, in finding the compound where Bin Laden has been hiding. She ends up being “the motherfucker who found this place. . . sir.”
Was it right to hit Bin Laden in the night, in front of crying children? The raid scene on Bin Laden’s compound is where the movie adds up, Bigelow’s directing chops achieve a new plateau, and all doubts on the movie’s intent and quality are thrown out the window. Osama Bin Laden was a terrible force, but he was also a human. Like Hitler and other evil men, he was unambiguously bloodthirsty and there is no excuse for his actions. What makes him even more formidable and frightening is that he was human, though, and not the sub-human boogeyman. He had his days where he ate dinners with his family and they laughed about good times, but he planned the attacks that killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, keeping those people from returning home to eat and laugh with their families. Nothing sends shivers up my spine more than that thought, about that duplicity, and the fact that any human is capable of such atrocities.
In the raid, Bin Laden was executed in front of whimpering women and children. The movie depicts this—with that throbbing score and authentic night-vision cinematography—with 3rd person observation. Again, Bigelow asks, “Was this right?” An eye for an eye, a code that goes back to Hammurabi, as old as history itself—But have we not evolved above this? I, as an audience member, as an America, as a human, am relieved, but I do not feel a sense of celebration. I feel dirty. But I am relieved, as we all are.
Catharsis. The final shot of the film represents this. After a pseudo-heroic return of Seal Team Six, Maya identifies Bin Laden. She then boards the back of a plan, which she has all to herself. She sits there, alone, and begins to cry. The complexities of this cry, and this final, beautiful shot, are numerous. More questions: Is she crying because she is glad that it’s over? Or she does not know what she is going to next, personally? Or is she disappointed at the lack of elation she feels?
Or does she just feel relieved that it is over?
Writer Mark Boal has gone on record saying depiction of torture is not an endorsement. It would be unfortunate if people demanding a simple narrative stripped this film of its rich complexities.
I give Zero Dark Thirty a strong 9 out of 10.
[i] It’s a damn shame that the Oscars snubbed Bigelow. This is a director’s movie. She creates a film that asks the audience many important questions using a wide variety of ingenious directorial techniques, all the while staying a truly personal and human story via Maya. She took numerous risks by tackling this subject, and they pay off wonderfully and complexly. She crafted an auteur’s procedural. I’m happy they opted to nominate indie sensation Benh Zeitlin and the previously Oscar-ignored Austrian Michael Haneke, but why does David O. Russell deserve to be here more than Kathryn Bigelow? Other than Life of Pi (Ang Lee) I don’t know if there was a better directed film this year than Zero Dark Thirty.
[ii] It just goes to show how often people make decisions before they know all of the facts.