Zero Dark Thirty

I’m going to ask you to stick with me for a moment. Zero Dark Thirty is the terrorist version of The Silence of the Lambs. You take a female protagonist who is working in a world of men and who must constantly prove her worth. Think of that moment on the elevator in Silence where FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is surrounded by men. They tower over her, and no one speaks to her. She isn’t dismissed, but she seems to be only barely tolerated. Now, compare the scene in Zero Dark Thirty where Jessica Chastain’s CIA Intelligence Analyst Maya is brought into a room full of men discussing strategy in regard to the hunt for bin Laden. Where do they seat Maya? Not at the long table, but in a chair in the corner. Once again, her presence, just like Starling’s, is tolerated, but she’s clearly not in the club.

Furthermore, Maya’s efforts to find bin Laden parallel Starling’s in that a series of interrogations are showcased where Maya and Dan (a terrific Jason Clarke) attempt to extract knowledge from an imprisoned terrorist (more on the tactics employed later) to capture or kill another terrorist. What does Starling do? She interrogates a serial killer (the great Anthony Hopkins in his iconic role as Hannibal Lecter) to catch another serial killer. 

In both films, you have a subtly feminist quest that two women are on to capture the worst the world has to offer. These two women have no other discernible lives. As Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna says in HEAT, “All I am is what I’m chasing.” Maya and Clarice are chasers, and chasers have no room for love interests, small talk, or outside friendships. All they are is what they are chasing.

I’ve long believed that Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most misunderstood films of the last decade. Upon the film’s release in 2012 (just one year after the killing of bin Laden), the film was initially met with huzzahs and hosannas by critics and nearly made $100 million at the box office, despite not having a bankable star at the center. Kathryn Bigelow’s sinewy direction at times threaded the needle between dramatization and documentary. At one point, it was an Oscar frontrunner for best picture.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the opening of the envelopes. Despite Bigelow being an avowed pacifist, Zero Dark Thirty started to be seen in some liberal quarters as pro-war, pro-torture, and pro-military. On a knee-jerk level, I understand that reaction. This is a film that shows the US military humiliating, brutalizing, and torturing a captive member of al-Qaeda in an effort to extract information that might lead to bin Laden’s location. When Seal Team Six takes two choppers into Pakistan to bin Laden’s hideout, killing a number of his protectors, and then bin Laden himself, they are shown as celebrating cowboys when they get back to base. All true.

I believe where the confusion lies is in the misunderstanding between presentation and approval. Bigelow, unlike many filmmakers, doesn’t tell us how to feel. She merely presents the events as they happened (or at least as much as one possibly can on film), and lets us decide. That’s a bold move, but I think it’s the correct one. As the film opens and a terribly soiled terrorist named Ammar (played by Reda Kateb) is tortured under the guise of “enhanced interrogation,” it is shown in truly grotesque terms. No matter how cruel Dan is to his captive, there’s never a moment of approval of his tactics. Maya herself nearly gets sick at the sight of the wretched scene, and you’d be hard-pressed not to feel her repulsion in the moment. 

Furthermore, without hitting you over the head, the film actually argues that torture doesn’t work. Dan gets nothing useful from Ammar as he abuses him. It’s only when he allows him to clean up, get a proper meal, and shows him a modicum of humanity that Dan and Maya are able to extract useful information. In fact, when a very cooked looking Dan decides to return stateside to a desk job and a suit, he can be heard saying, “I need to go do something normal for a while.” He also points out to Maya that “The politics are changing,” and “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar.” The note on politics is a nod to the forthcoming change in tactics by the new Obama administration. The preceding scene shows Maya with an interrogator beating on a man who refuses to give them any useful information. Maya is then seen gasping for breath in a bathroom after watching the detainee get waterboarded. Dan and Maya may be using the tools that were approved by the Bush administration, but it’s hard not to miss the point that in debasing others, they have debased themselves. It’s unlikely that either of them will ever be “normal” again.

As for the whoops and hollers of Seal Team Six when they land on secure ground with bin Laden’s body in tow, well, it’s hard to believe that they didn’t respond to the success of their mission in that way. Osama bin Laden was the most wanted man on earth, and not only did they complete their mission by bringing his corpse back to base, they didn’t lose a single man in doing so–despite crashing one of the two helicopters. These are soldiers who did what they were told, they succeeded, and they are all still alive. Does anyone believe they would have behaved in any other fashion?

Bigelow neither condones nor condemns. She trusts the audience to sort it out. She lets us make up our own minds about what we’ve seen. That’s a complicated choice, not only for the film, but for the viewer. Zero Dark Thirty has been mislabeled as propaganda, when it is nothing of the sort. While Bigelow’s muscular direction may be persuasive and thrilling as filmmaking, the screenplay (written by Mark Boal) works only in shades of gray. All that is shown on screen is at the service of the story, and the story not only feels authentic, the particulars of the story are often lifted directly from direct accounts and public record. I think the simple fact is that we all bring our own perspective to the events surrounding 9/11 and the hunt for bin Laden, and no matter how you see those circumstances personally, Bigelow neither confirms nor denies your perspective. In short, Bigelow treats us like grown-ups.

At the center of this daring and bracing film stands Jessica Chastain as Maya, in what I still consider the performance of her life (yes, I know, huge statement). Chastain stands all of 5 foot 4, but there can be no denying the towering performance she gives here. When asked who she is in a room of men who look at her in suspect fashion, she replies, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place.” “This place,” being the compound where bin Laden is hiding out in Pakistan. In the hands of a less gifted actor, that line might have come off as a shoehorned “badass” bit of dialogue cooked up by an overzealous screenwriter. But from the lips of Chastain, it is a declaration of defiance, fervent belief, and worth. She belongs in the room, motherfuckers. 

Then there’s her dressing down of her superior (the sturdy Kyle Chandler) in an open hallway as she pushes him to move on the information she has gathered on bin Laden’s whereabouts. As an actor, Chandler is no one’s vision of a “soft” performer, but Chastain positively eviscerates him. I swear, the crease in the center of her forehead looks almost like a serpent begging for release so that it may be allowed to swallow Chandler whole. Here is a woman whose whole adult life has been dedicated to the pursuit of one thing and one thing only. And she’ll be damned if some overly cautious suit is going to keep her from bringing that pursuit to a close.

Maya’s will does eventually win out. But when she’s proven correct, the celebration of Seal Team Six is not something Maya takes part in. She identifies bin Laden’s body and then she moves on. The raid on the compound is brilliantly shot in what feels like real time. But there’s no flag-waving during the break-in. Men and women are killed. Children are left terrorized. While Bigelow’s camera never lingers too long on any moment in this sequence, the pain and suffering caused to innocents is not overlooked. It’s so palpable, that it’s hard not to think that in killing one terrorist leader, even one as notorious as bin Laden, that the actions of the US military will likely result in the creation of more anti-American extremists. 

The movie ends with one of the most melancholy and mysterious closes in recent film history. A plane is sent to bring Maya home. She is the only passenger aboard. She buckles herself in. The pilot asks her where she wants to go. She does not respond. The camera then closes in on her face, and she begins to softly weep. What is she thinking? Are those tears of relief for someone who has finally achieved the goal of their life? And if so, why is she not celebrating? Is it exhaustion, the memories of the friends she’s lost along the way? The horrors that she has seen? I’m sure all of that is in there, but I saw something else in her eyes too. 

At an earlier point in the film, Maya sits down with the CIA Director (the great James Gandolfini) and he asks, “What have you done for us, besides bin Laden.” Maya’s reply says it all. “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.”

When your whole life has been wrapped up in one single obsession and then you’ve achieved it, the question that comes to mind is what’s next? Is this the peak accomplishment of her life? It would be hard to believe otherwise. Suddenly, Maya’s life has become a blank slate. What belongs there? Where does she go? What now?

It’s an incredibly personal ending to a film about huge, complicated, and thorny issues. Words are not necessary. Just Chastain’s face in a narrow frame going through a range of devastating emotions.

What now, indeed.


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