LITTLE ROCK Some people, including three U.S. senators and the estimable cultural critic Naomi Wolf, have raised some interesting questions about the morality of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s somber and surgical movie about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden conducted by American military and intelligence forces in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Wolf - in her Jan. 4 column in the British newspaper The Guardian - called Bigelow’s movie an “apology for torture,” and equated Bigelow to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
“Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist,” Wolf wrote, “but now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden.”
Now I have seen Zero Dark Thirty, and I have studied (and taught) Riefenstahl’s work. Bigelow has always been a director drawn to what she has called “seductive violence” - her early films Blue Steel and Point Break exposed a very American fascination with the tools and techniques of hurting human beings.
She understands that present in our hearts are triggers that might be tugged by beautiful horror. People are susceptible to believing what we see and confusing (and conflating) Eros and Thanatos, but do we hold the artist liable for the misapprehensions of the audience?
I wouldn’t prohibit Bigelow - or anyone - from addressing hard subjects simply because her movie might be misread by intellectually lazy and morally malleable jingoists.
So while some might argue that Zero Dark Thirty tells a story that needn’t be told and others might doubt the official version that informs its plot (there are those who disbelieve bin Laden had anything to do with 9/11 and others who disbelieve whatever governments tell them), it would seem disingenuous to produce a movie about these events that didn’t acknowledge the harshness of our tactics. That would be bad journalism, and though Zero Dark Thirty is a work of fiction, it is presented as a deeply researched and emotionally honest work.
We are responsible for making judgments about an artist’s motives, and about how genuine or false a purportedly true story rings. Of course Zero Dark Thirty could be dismissed as propaganda by an ideologue, but it seems to me the only serious question to be asked about the movie is “Is it honest?”
As entertainment, Zero Dark Thirty is a great accomplishment - a somber, black-winged benediction for what we might count as a lost decade. Even though we know how it ends, we are enthralled by the way the story is spooled out. Though the movie is nearly three hours long, Bigelow has an uncanny sense of pacing and rhythm, which is never more evident than in the film’s most audacious set-piece, an almost unbearably tense, moment by-moment re-creation of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
But Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are careful not to exploit the cathartic potential of the raid, and the movie ends on a note that’s dissonant with the expectations of an action movie crowd. It ends where it begins, with the enigmatic Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young woman recruited into the CIA specifically to ferret out the architect of the 9/11 attacks. (The filmmakers have said the character is based on a real person, whose name was changed for security reasons.)
We learn nothing of her personal life, except perhaps that she hasn’t one, and we pick up most of the details of the story through in situ conversations with colleagues and interrogations of detainees. We understand that she has a theory that the way to get bin Laden is to first find the courier who connects him to his network.
Chastain’s Maya is an alert and sensitive being, one who questions the orders she’s obliged to follow. She flinches at the torture in a way Bigelow’s camera does not, but she does what she believes she must. She argues and cajoles and pouts when she feels her opinions are not accorded sufficient weight. We learn things about her through the remarks of others - “Washington says she’s a killer,” we overhear early on, before she has demonstrated anything other than a tentative mousiness.
It should be said that the cast is uniformly fine, although it’s difficult to find a genuine co-star among the players. Jason Clarke (Lawless) and Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech) manage the trick of seeming simultaneously ordinary and possessed of a particular set of skills. Other familiar faces pop up for a moment or two - Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt - but the film belongs to the deeply complicated and ultimately unparseable Maya.
And, so, to answer the question: To me, Zero Dark Thirty feels authentic, based on what I think I know about how certain systems (the military-industrial complex, Hollywood, high school cliques) operate.
In my judgment, it is not an apology for torture. I did not come away from the film believing in water boarding as an effective means of intelligence gathering, but then I went into the film with a certain set of prejudices - if anything, I think the film’s depictions of torture seem likely to make tangible the rough realities of retail war-making. I credit the film for exposing the gears of the machine, for telling something like the truth about how operatives operate. I am sure many people have done bad things in pursuit of noble goals.
I do not equate representation with endorsement, and I think that is a stupid thing to do.
Better to show us what is done in our name than to fade to black.
Zero Dark Thirty 92
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rating: R, for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language
Running time: 157 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 01/11/2013
Print Headline: Intelligence coup/Zero Dark Thirty’s hunt for Osama bin Laden has an air of authenticity