The screen is black. Voices shout at us as we stare into the void. They are radio recordings from 9/11: The sounds of confused air traffic controllers overlap with the words of a frightened woman stranded at the top of one of the towers, choking on smoke while an emergency operator struggles to keep her calm. It is a harrowing throwback to one of America’s worst days.
It is also the gripping and minimalist opening of Zero Dark Thirty. These early moments set the stage for the rest of this tightly plotted, relentlessly paced, and thrilling procedural. Scenes of harsh interrogations intercut with attacks around the globe: a Qaeda member is water-boarded before we witness a mass shooting in Saudi Arabia; prisoners in hoods are shouted at as a bus explodes in London.
Maya (Jessica Chastain), a newly minted CIA agent looking to find her footing as the agency plays its part in the war on terror, is obsessed with tracking down Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Rumor has it he is Osama bin Laden’s most trusted courier. Maya is convinced that finding him will lead to bin Laden and end the attacks on Western soil.
The film’s intimate and naturalistic style helps us connect with the character. In some ways Maya’s job is just like any of ours. She has to prove herself to her superiors. She spends time chatting with coworkers on AOL Instant Messenger. But when Maya uses AIM the messages go from her PC to a satellite phone at a CIA black site, and when she meets her coworkers for dinner she risks getting blown up in a suicide bombing. The dissonance created by pairing the familiar and the horrible is a jarring, brilliant choice by director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal.
These two paired up before on 2008’s The Hurt Locker, the best film yet about the Iraq war. They tackle a different aspect of the war on terror this time around, and do so in a different way. This film is more Point Break, which Bigelow also directed, than Hurt Locker. Maya is solving a mystery, not fighting a war.
Bigelow is one of the few directors who can make a chaotic action sequence and a montage of a pedestrian desk job feel equally compelling. SEAL Team Six’s assault comprises only a small part of this picture, but it is expertly filmed, and moves seamlessly from night-vision point of view shots to third-person establishing shots. We are taken through the mission floor by floor as two teams of SEALs implacably hunt their prey and a pair of soldiers holds curious locals at bay outside the compound.
The performances are top notch. Chastain dominates the screen, her character evolving from nervous but willing to domineering and demanding. She conveys Maya’s state of mind through an intoxicating combination of charisma and obsession. The identification the audience feels with Maya makes Bigelow’s parting shot—Maya sitting alone, exhausted, and unsure what to do next—all the more affecting.
A murderer’s row fills out the supporting cast. We are treated to brief appearances by James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, and other great character actors. A special mention goes to Jason Clarke, who previously teamed with Chastain in the underrated Lawless. His Dan shows Maya the ropes of the dark art of harsh interrogation. Bearded and wild-eyed, Clarke portrays the human toll of such activities as he increasingly gets burned out before being sent back to CIA headquarters stateside.
Almost as interesting as the film itself has been the reaction to it, much of which occurred before the film’s most vocal critics even had a chance to watch it. The right was upset with reports that the Obama administration had given the filmmakers access to classified material. Sillier was the Republican concern that a battery of advertisements reminding audiences that Osama bin Laden was killed under Barack Obama’s watch amounted to an in-kind contribution during a tight election campaign.
The real hackles, though, came from the left. Glenn Greenwald wrote in the Guardian that “the film glorifies torture by depicting it as crucial to getting bin Laden” and sadly professed his lack of surprise that “this film would depict CIA interrogation programs as crucial in capturing America's most hated public enemy, and uncritically herald CIA officials as dramatic heroes.”
Nor was Greenwald the only ignorant—as in, “Lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular”—sap to jump on the Biggy-Boal-bashing bandwagon. Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer sarcastically tweeted that Bigelow had “made a pro-torture propaganda film,” and slammed “Bigelow's baseless portrayal of torture as necessary to getting bin Laden.” Andrew Sullivan had the decency to add a question mark to the series of posts headlined, “Kathryn Bigelow: Torture Apologist?” After actually bothering to see the film, Sullivan graciously downgraded Bigelow and Boal from torture apologists to “cowards rather than liars.”
The left’s kneejerk and ignorant response to Zero Dark Thirty revealed an oddly naive aesthetic provincialism. As Glenn Kenny joked, “The why-isn’t-this-movie-behaving-as-I-would-like-it-to whine is the most reliable of philistine giveaways.” “Based on a true story,” as anyone knows, is not the same as “a true story”; showing something that happened is not the same as endorsing its occurrence; judging an artistic product without having seen the art in question used to be frowned upon.
It was telling that Zero Dark Thirty encountered such an unexpected clamor. You will find few arguing that Django Unchained is illegitimate art because Mandingo fights didn’t occur. Yet Zero Dark Thirty is treated differently, because opponents of the Bush administration take it as a violation of one of their sacred decrees.
That decree is as follows: not only are harsh interrogations or “enhanced interrogation techniques” evil and immoral and wrong, they also lead to no intelligence or bad intelligence. According to such logic there are no tradeoffs to be made between treatment of detainees and security, and those who support waterboarding do so because they derive sick pleasure from the practice.
This is foolishness. As Mark Bowden reports throughout his book on the killing of bin Laden, The Finish, harsh interrogations were unleashed repeatedly on a number of sources, and resulted in actionable intelligence:
Having been thrice acknowledged, albeit thrice acknowledged under torture, the prospect of [Abu Ahmed] being fiction—someone made up by a detainee spinning stories—became less likely. He existed, or had existed. … There is no simplistic narrative of a hard-pressed detainee coughing up a critical lead, but there is also no way of knowing if these disclosures would have come without resorting to harsh methods.
It is hardly worth arguing over whether such methods constitute “torture,” though slapping around and simulating drowning terrorists who would do far worse before beheading their captives strikes me as falling somewhat short of the definition. As Kyle Smith has put it: “Any reasonable definition of torture must exclude procedures that sane people would undergo on a lark.” Regardless, these methods were used. These methods were successful.
Pointing this out is not “glorifying” “torture.” It is stating a fact.