Silver Screen: Zero Dark Thirty ****1/2
The thing I like least about the HBO show Girls is that it has become more a cultural litmus test than an actual television show. Either you like it because you're a forward-thinking person who's excited to see an atypically attractive woman (creator-star Lena Dunham) as a writer-director who expresses a point of view underrepresented in popular culture, or you dislike it because you're a misogynist jerk who wants to silence women's voices and are subconsciously threatened by a woman confident with her own body-image issues. Ambiguous or complicated thoughts about the show's actual content have been relegated to a demilitarized zone where no opinions dare dwell between two camps starring each other down over barbed-wire fences.
A similar phenomenon has occurred with Zero Dark Thirty, a complex movie that the binary cultural consensus either deems a steely validation of conservative notions of justice or an elaborately misleading pro-torture argument that intentionally warps the truth in order to serve the interests of the CIA. Form two lines, viewers; you're either a hard-bitten realist who rightfully does not regret that we did what we had to do, or you're a credulous dupe suckered in by bright, shining lies.
Zero Dark Thirty is in fact excellent and compelling, but also troubling and flawed. It's an expertly executed, hugely ambitious film that attempts a trek through a political minefield and perhaps fails to make it all the way. Rather than condemn director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for attempting something so difficult, however, maybe it's more instructive to celebrate the effort and debate the subtleties-- or we could collectively agree to just rewatch the overrated, anodyne Argo and enjoy as Ben Affleck pats Hollywood on the back for being smarter than everyone else.
Zero Dark Thirty is, structurally, a straightforward procedural with little time for filler and transitions. It begins with a brief but haunting prologue, an all-black screen overlaid with an audio montage of September 11 phone calls made by people trapped in the burning towers, then cuts to 2003 as the hunt for bin Laden is underway.
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA analyst fresh out of college. The movie's opening scene is her first personal experience with torture. It's a long, squirm-inducing sequence as her fellow operative, Dan (Jason Clark of Lawless), puts a prisoner (Reda Kateb) through a series of agonizing degradations.
After the long opening, the film moves swiftly but chronologically through time, covering more than seven years in little more than two and a half hours. Dan eventually opts to return to work in Washington, D.C., and the search for bin Laden is increasingly deprioritized as the CIA devotes more time to seeking intel on plans for future attacks. Maya remains totally dedicated to the manhunt, however, especially after her colleague's (Jennifer Ehle) disastrous attempt to bring in a new source of information in a scene that plays like the tensest moments of Bigelow's nerve-wracking The Hurt Locker.
Maya not only finds herself continuously in harm's way, she also becomes isolated from almost everyone else in her office as she remains single-minded in her focus on bin Laden. She's convinced the key to his discovery lies in locating the courier who ferries messages to and from his hiding place.
Bin Laden's stronghold, as of course we now know, is a fairly inconspicuous, walled compound in a residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan. Locating him would seem to be prelude to victory, but despite Maya's near certainty that the al-Qaeda leader is living in the compound, she has a difficult time convincing the intelligence-agency leaders (headed by James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta) that her information is reliable. She wants to drop a bomb on the building and be done with it, but the CIA is hesitant to move forward.
Of course, the ultimate decision is to send in a team of Navy SEALs, and the whole film builds to the intense, second-by-second depiction of the notorious nighttime raid. Despite our knowledge of how it will turn out, Zero Dark Thirty is breathlessly suspenseful, from the frantic blunder as one of the Navy helicopters goes down to the tension mounting outside the walls of the compound as less-than-hospitable Pakistanis gather around to investigate the commotion. Inside, the raid is portrayed with the icy efficiency of a docu-drama. The SEALs enter in low light, seen through the green tint of their night-vision goggles, mercilessly dispatching the compound's defenders and pushing through clusters of terrified children on their way to the third floor, where one of the most hated figures in American history lies in wait. Bigelow doesn't stylize the sequence for effect, but leaves it to the flat crack of silenced rifle shots and stunned recognition by the SEALs to convey the gravity of the discovery. Bin Laden's corporeal form remains a thing mostly seen secondhand, through the stunned gaze of the military men.
So what then to make of Zero Dark Thirty's stance on the whys and wherefores of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden and all that it entailed? Merely posing the question reveals the immensity of that task, and the impossibility of encompassing the full spectrum of the political, moral, and strategic quandaries. Should Bigelow have included scenes or at least discussions between characters about the frequent, ineffective, and even counter-effective results of torture? Perhaps. It's also worth noting that the film is told from the perspective of the CIA operatives, and as such their biases are inherently factored into the presentation.
But by no means did I personally leave the theater with a more favorable view of torture, or think that the movie endorsed such practices. In the quiet final moments, as Maya sheds tears while preparing to board a plane home, we can read any number of interpretations into the moment. Is she crying because she has dedicated her entire adult life to something that's now over and finds herself lonely and adrift? Is she crying remembering her friends who died and the people who lost their lives in the towers? Is she crying because of what she's had to become and what her country has become? Is she crying because ultimately the revenge was not worth the cost? It could be any of those things. It could be all. It's ambiguous, people.
Those who want to see a movie where someone looks directly into the camera and says, “Gee, torture is terrible and we never should have done that” are simply desiring to see a different movie than the one presented. That's not to say Bigelow's handling of a vast ocean of (often conflicting) evidence and information is perfect, but that it is, inevitably, incomplete. To make the claim the film makes blunt, implicit arguments for the effectiveness of torture is to flagrantly ignore scenes like the one in which Maya gains her most essential piece of evidence in the case by purchasing a source an expensive sports car with no violent repercussions.
Zero Dark Thirty is complex, unnerving, and bold, but it is still flawed and sometimes confounding, and provides at least as many questions as answers. I'll take that any day.
So enjoy your Argo, suckers.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.