Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty begins with voices heard on cell phone calls and answering machines during the 9/11 attacks. It is hard to hear these voices of course, but in beginning the film with them director Kathryn Bigelow has pulled the raw horror of that day from the collective memory hole we have agreed to put it in. Images of the Twin Towers burning are almost never shown on television in this country, and movies have only barely touched 9/11 as a subject. Bigelow wants us to remember, but not as belated justification for an expensive foreign war and especially not to explain away an interrogation program of dubious utility and politically motivated amorality. The voices of 9/11 are a jumping off point for a movie about an obsession motivated by equal parts anger, grief, and duty. Zero Dark Thirty has been made with enormous skill and a surprising amount of soul, and its achievement is to celebrate the signature American-performed event of the War on Terror while telling the story of the cost to those who made it possible.

 The opening section of Zero Dark Thirty revolves around the interrogation of a prisoner named Ammar (Reda Kateb) whom it is believed may have information key to the unraveling of high-level Al Qaeda networks. Most of the material that those who take issue with the film’s attitude to torture are objecting to is located in these early scenes and they are indeed difficult to watch. CIA agents Dan (Jason Clarke) and Maya (Jessica Chastain) carry out acts of brutality (including waterboarding and sexual humiliation) with a depressing sense of normality, though Maya can barely hide her discomfort and I read Dan’s lack of affect as more a deep sense of fatigue than as any latent sadism. More significantly, the notion that Zero Dark Thirty somehow celebrates or excuses the Americans’ use of torture is hard to credit, given that the Ammar scenes are shot in such a way as to bring home the cost for both torturer and victim. (For a more specific discussion of the shot sequence in these scenes I recommend this.) The piece of information that sets Maya on the long road to finding bin Laden is obtained after another attack occurs; the Americans try a bluff out of desperation and convince Ammar that he has already talked, thereby getting the name of the “courier” who will eventually lead to bin Laden’s location. We don’t see Ammar again or hear what happens to him after this point in the film, and it’s the lack of information that should disturb thoughtful viewers. I haven’t heard those making a case that Zero Dark Thirty is bad on torture mention a scene that bothered me more in which Maya reviews tapes of other detainees who also identify the courier; some of these men are depicted in what I believe used to be referred to as “stress positions.” It’s this montage of the surrendering of information that accidentally argues for the efficacy of torture. I say “accidentally” because I emphatically don’t believe that is what Bigelow and writer Mark Boal intended.

“You don’t understand Pakistan,” Maya says in a late scene. She’s talking to a CIA station chief (Kyle Chandler) who is under pressure to direct his resources towards protecting the homeland. There’s an implicit argument in Boal’s script that we really don’t understand the battleground or the opponent in the War on Terror. A colleague of Maya’s (Jennifer Ehle) works her sources with the belief that information can be garnered through money, an idea Maya coolly dismisses. (“They’re radicals.”) In fact the application of money does eventually help yield the courier’s location, but only in combination with good luck and painstaking tradecraft. Zero Dark Thirty is very good at conveying just how much work finding bin Laden was; a look at Chastain’s expressive eyes reveals that this is in part a film about being tired. Jessica Chastain has been celebrated in other films for qualities that aren’t on display here; Maya wouldn’t know what to say if she met Chastain’s character from The Tree of Life. There is no sense in the script of how Maya got to the point she finds herself at when we first meet her, and the lack of backstory makes Chastain’s fierce performance all the more remarkable. When we see Maya made up and professionally dressed when she returns to Washington the effect is jarring at first; this is a woman who was born for the field.

Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t rush the depiction of the climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound. We spend a little time with the jolly group of soldiers (led by Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, and Taylor Kinney) and then we’re following the helicopters from a Afghan base over the border into Pakistan. There are details that I didn’t know which may surprise some, and the overall effect is one of overwhelming professionalism and imminent disaster. It’s not surprising that Zero Dark Thirty ends soon after the soldiers return with bin Laden’s body. We worry for the soldiers but our mind has been on the waiting Maya the whole time; the fact that there’s not much to say after the work of a decade says a great deal about where we are as a nation entering the second decade after 9/11. The final question asked in Boal’s script is “Where do you want to go?”, and the final, shattering shot might as well be all of us looking in the mirror.

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