Director Kathryn Bigelow is known for working in traditionally masculine genres like the action movie, and Zero Dark Thirty, with its focus on the war against Al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 and on the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, fits this reputation to a T. What’s unusual about it in her oeuvre, however, is that the sole protagonist is a woman. She’s had strong female characters in her films before, but this is the first one since Blue Steel (1989) in which a woman pretty much carries the whole story. So it’s interesting that Bigelow moves away from her usual focus on thrill-seekers and adrenaline-junkies (such as the protagonist of her last film, The Hurt Locker) to give us a study of someone obsessed with revenge. Indeed the CIA Agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, comes on like one of the Greek Furies, all porcelain hardness and grim dedication. Yet she’s not a fantasy figure of revenge, like Django in Django Unchained, but a character with a nightmarish illusion of reality.
A lot of discussion about this movie so far has been about whether it endorses the use of torture. It seems to me studiously contradictory on the subject. It portrays the torture as horrific and inhuman, and it’s ambiguous about the results or what exactly causes some of the informants to finally answer questions. As with The Hurt Locker, the film seems to play with the very notion of embeddedness. (The screenwriter for both films, Mark Boal, is a journalist who did some embedded reporting from Iraq.) We see everything from the perspective of the CIA agents, mostly from Maya’s perspective. To the extent that these characters question what they are doing, it comes elliptically, as when the CIA torturer, Dan, says he’s going back to DC because he’s “seen too many naked guys.” The fact that the film does not take an overt moral stance that torture is bad — and the fact that, as many have pointed out, it does not acknowledge the debate within the CIA about the use of torture — means it does, by omission, seem to condone the torture. Yet my sense is that Bigelow is less interested in the question of whether it was right or wrong and more interested in the question of how did we get there and what does it do to us?
Again as in The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t approach this question from a biographical or psychological point of view. We learn almost nothing about Maya’s past except that she was recruited by the CIA out of high school and has really known no other life. Her whole adult life has been dedicated to tracking down Osama Bin Laden. We also get very little information about what she’s thinking or feeling. The little tidbits we get imply a lot, however. One brief conversation with a colleague establishes that she has no boyfriends or any other kind of friends. The movie is very much focused on the procedural aspects of tracking Bin Laden down, but again and again we see Maya alone, in a new place that has nothing personal about it, eating junk food. She is a completely isolated, obsessive, detached character. This is the emotional core of the film, which is careful to only show us the surfaces. The implication is that the surface is all there is to Maya. There’s no deep inner life there to explain what she’s doing. Everything is a reflex reaction to what we hear in the first seconds of the film, which is voices responding to the attacks on 9/11, some of them about to die.
On that front it’s also interesting that for all the debate about the film’s depiction of torture, I haven’t seen much discussion of how it treats other aspects of the so-called War on Terror. One that jumped out at me was the two mentions of the use of CIA intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. In the first one, a a political adviser to President Obama cuts a CIA official down to size by reminding him that the Iraq intelligence was wrong. Later in a CIA meeting headed by Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) in which they discuss whether the intelligence they have on Bin Laden’s location is actually true, another CIA official compares it to the Iraq intelligence and finds the Bin Laden intelligence less probable. Is this an example of retrospective ass-covering? The scene is ambiguous on this point, although the men quibbling about probabilities in the meeting are made to look small compared to Maya, who is dead certain that her intelligence is true and is proved to be right.
There’s also a brief mention of a terrorist who was motivated to strike out at the U.S. by the drone attacks in Pakistan. The tense conflict between Muslim terrorists and the American military infuses the film, creating a mood of dread and anxiety where a bomb could go off at any second and any of these characters could die. If there’s no judgment made on the rightness or wrongness of torture, there’s no judgment made on the rightness or wrongness of terrorism either. There’s a sense of implacable, unintelligible forces at work. The people who see this film as a triumphalist narrative are smoking crack, as far as I’m concerned. Bin Laden is killed, but there’s no sense that anything has been resolved. There’s no sense of where the conflict comes from. It’s existential. It’s what we’re soaking in. As Mephistopheles says in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” This is a story about the unresolved crisis of America right here and right now. It’s only fitting that it has stirred up a heated debate about torture, because we are still the people who committed that torture, and we haven’t even come close to dealing with that fact.