Zero Dark Thirty: Ooh-Rah!

by Ethan Alter December 19, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Zero Dark Thirty</i>: Ooh-Rah!

It's hard not to watch Zero Dark Thirty without drawing comparisons to Homeland and not just because both Kathryn Bigelow's new movie and that hit Showtime drama both revolve around a doggedly determined, socially awkward female CIA agent (Jessica Chastain's Maya on the big screen and Claire Danes' Carrie on the small) dedicating herself to bringing down America's most wanted terrorist, no matter the personal and professional cost. Beyond that, both the film and the series are shot through with a profound ambivalence -- and even skepticism -- about the way the nation's chief counter-terrorism agency operates, not to mention the moral compromises individual agents make in service of what they perceive to be their duty. But at the end of the day (and as the Season 2 finale made abundantly clear), Homeland is first and foremost a skillfully written soap opera, which uses the War on Terror as a backdrop to the twisted love story at its center; the show's "realism" exists entirely within quotation marks. Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, aspires to near-complete authenticity; while the decade-long CIA manhunt for Osama bin Laden almost certainly didn't proceed in precisely the manner that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal present here, it's the closest we're probably going to get without being granted clearance to review the Agency's classified files.

A journalist-turned-movie scribe, Boal's background as a reporter has been apparent in both of his collaborations with Bigelow. Their first film together -- 2008's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker -- felt like the cinematic equivalent of an in-depth magazine profile, embedding viewers within the ranks of a three-man bomb disposal team during their year-long tour of duty in Iraq and balancing the little details of their lives on the ground with the big picture stuff. (And, in fact, Boal did pen a lengthy profile of one of these bomb squad guys for a 2005 issue of Playboy.) Zero Dark Thirty is structured like a more traditional front-page news story, with Boal laying out a sequence of events culled from his own research and interviews and Bigelow dramatizing them with a minimum of overt editorializing. It's squarely in the tradition of procedurals like All the President's Men and Zodiac and it instantly deserves to take its place alongside those films as a classic of this particular genre. While I admired The Hurt Locker and don't begrudge it its award success (hell, it's because of that film that Bigelow and Boal got this one made), Zero Dark Thirty stands head-and-shoulders above its predecessor, a remarkable you-are-there recreation of the past decade of American covert affairs. Like an exceptional piece of journalism, it's thrilling, nuanced and, in the end, even moving.

Most fictionalized accounts of CIA activity (including Homeland) try to mine the gulf that separates the real world from the insular community of the Agency for dramatic material. Zero Dark Thirty is unique in that it never sets foot outside of the CIA milieu (with the obvious exception of the climactic raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, which unfolds from the perspective of the Navy SEAL team that carry out that operation) even when the film ventures overseas. From the moment she touches down in Pakistan in 2003 -- fresh out of Quantico and two years removed from the events of 9/11 -- Maya enters a parallel reality that operates by its own distinct rules. One of the criticisms that has been leveled at ZD30 is that Boal and Bigelow shortchange the audience (and Chastain, who is absolutely terrific in the film, by the way) by not dwelling more on -- or, at the very least, acknowledging -- their lead character's off-the-clock existence, but that charge overlooks the fact that the absence of a private life is a key element of Maya's character. For her and for many of her colleagues -- who include her mentor Dan (Jason Clarke), superior Joseph (Kyle Chandler) and colleague-turned-close friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) -- the work is all there is. Forced by the restrictions of both their environment and their profession to maintain a low profile, they rarely venture anyway beyond the office or their living quarters and avoid extracurricular associations with anyone outside of the Agency. And the fact is, we do see Maya's personality in subtle ways evolve over the course of the film; the initial steeliness with which she greets her new co-workers eventually gives way to genuine respect and friendship, especially in regards to Jennifer. And when that relationship takes a tragic turn, it lights a new fire under Maya to stay on bin Laden's trail; without ever verbalizing it, the film makes it clear that her profession has become personal. It's also no accident that, after this turn in the story, Maya's attitudes towards certain less-than-admirable aspects of her job "evolve" particularly in relation to torture.

Ah yes... the torture question. This is the primary controversy that has been swirling around ZD30 for weeks leading up to the movie's release, with certain commentators and critics charging that even if the movie doesn't necessarily glorify torture, the lack of an explicit on-screen condemnation of the practice doubles as a tacit acknowledgement of its effectiveness in the CIA's ability to eventually find bin Laden. Look, there's no question that the extended sequences featuring "enhanced interrogation techniques" are difficult to watch, both due to the graphic content and the fact that Clarke -- who carries out the majority of these interrogations -- is so damn charismatic, you're both repelled and drawn to him at the same time. And it certainly remains dubious whether any actionable intelligence emerged from these torture sessions. (It's worth noting that the film never suggests that any one piece of information obtained under duress -- a torture-generated Rosetta Stone if you will -- led directly to the capture of bin Laden; rather, bits and pieces emerge that Maya plugs in to the overall theory she's pursuing.) But to focus so narrowly on that aspect of the film's depiction of torture is a case of missing the forest for the trees. What Boal and Bigelow are up to in the film's treatment of torture is two-fold: first, acknowledging that it happened and offering a stark, unflinching depiction of just how ugly it is (this isn't 24-style torture, which was always pretty cartoonish); and second, positioning it as a conscious choice that the characters in this film (and the agents on the ground in real life) made and then asking them -- and us -- to ponder if it ultimately was worth it. Sure, they eventually got their man and torture was a tool they employed in service of that goal, whether or not it paid off. But how can it be considered a clean "victory" given what was lost in the process?

Boal and Bigelow deepen this line of inquiry by treating bin Laden as a specter throughout the film, one who never appears onscreen in dramatic recreations or even as a mugshot tacked up on a billboard. The implication is that Maya's single-minded focus on finding bin Laden has made him more than just a man -- he lurks around the edges of her world as the possible cure to the grief and hurt she carries around with her every day. In fact, one of her rare happy moments in the film comes when she watches the SEAL team (whose ranks include Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) prepare to embark on their midnight raid that her hard work helped bring about. Lest you think we're being set up for a rah-rah up-with-America ending straight out of Act of Valor or something, the final half-hour of ZD30 pointedly shows that there's no single cure for the pain Maya is suffering from. For starters, the mission itself -- which is expertly choreographed and paced by Bigelow -- is far from clean, as the soldiers make a series of tactical errors that result in the possibly-preventable deaths of several men and women on the compound.

In a bold, pointed choice, the killing of bin Laden himself is treated in an almost cursory manner -- we're never shown a clean image of the kill shot or his prone, bullet-riddled body. So instead of triumphant music and the image of the dead boogeyman, we're left listening to the frightened screams of bin Laden's children and staring at the chaotic aftermath of the raid, with blood on the walls and the family's possessions scattered all over the ground. Maya's own subsequent encounter with bin Laden's corpse proves equally unsatisfying. There he is, lying in front of her and she feels... what? Chastain's face in the film's closing moments is a Rorschach test of emotions and -- as they have throughout -- Bigelow and Boal avoid putting false words in her mouth. "Where do you want to go?" someone asks Maya towards the end of the Zero Dark Thirty. Given where she's come from and what she's surrendered along the way to arrive at this point, it's a question that will haunt her -- and us as a nation -- for years going forward.

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