Antya on Zero Dark Thirty
The terrified pleas, the confusing noise of chaos and a sense of eeriness playing over a dark screen in the opening sequence sets the tone for Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to the acclaimed The Hurt Locker. There has been a lot of hoopla surrounding the release of this film, with people constantly discussing and debating the moral conundrum therein, with a lot of them coming squarely on the side of scathing criticism, accusing Bigelow and Mark Boal of condoning torture. I don’t know what to say to this, except that they are missing the forest for the trees. There has been a little bit of discussion following the other piece I wrote about a film by another controversial filmmaker, regarding how people in an audience choose to view and consume things differently while watching the exact same thing play out on screen. Still, I cannot help but wonder if the controversy and the roiling debate about Zero Dark Thirty is not somewhat politically motivated and media generated. Watching the film, I could hardly believe people had been so outraged by what was shown on screen. If only they had been equally outraged by being falsely led into an expensive, exhausting war by their president’s outright lies, they wouldn’t have re-elected a paper tiger who had become the subject of mockery and condemnation around the world. But leave it to the Americans to save their moral outrage for Hollywood. Since it seems that it cannot be said enough, reporting is not condoning.
Zero Dark Thirty remains pretty much on the sidelines of politics. It is not a documentary but a somewhat fictionalized version of the events involved in the biggest, most expensive manhunt in history, made by piecing together accounts of events based on a lot of research and interviews. For all it’s gritty realism, it doesn’t play like a docu-drama but an investigative procedural, albeit a well-crafted, superbly acted one. The most lasting image from the film is Jessica Chastain’s face. She fits perfectly here, her porcelain skin almost like a mask, giving away little. We come to know her intimately, this zealot chasing zealots, waging her own decade long jihad against a slippery enemy. Yet we don’t know her at all, there is no background information; we are almost taken aback when we get to see a moment’s glimpse of her desktop that has her picture with a girl – who is that? a daughter? a niece? But there is no time to ponder, as the camera keeps moving, ignoring our curiosity. She is a mess throughout, but lets emotion overcome her only once, when she loses a fellow female operative (the always fantastic Jennifer Ehle) with whom she had developed a reluctant camraderie. As far as this narrative is concerned, these people are their jobs, their character determined by what they do. So what does it say about them, when that work involves a lot of questionable actions and choices? We see Maya folding into herself, cringing but not fleeing the venue when she first arrives on the scene of torture of a detainee. When the torturer leaves her there for a minute and the prisoner, sensing something in her perhaps, tries to appeal to her compassion, she steels herself and tells him he can help himself by being truthful. Later in the film, when she has been on the trail for a few years, she threatens another detainee with torture if he doesn’t give her what she wants. This time, she doesn’t flinch, it’s very matter-of-fact. The torturer Dan, a hard-boiled CIA man with a PhD, is hardly seen enjoying his job either, but does what he has to do, or thinks he has to do. After all, the debate was also about whether torture actually works. Dan tells his detainee that eventually everybody breaks, it’s Biology. But Biology is complex, people have been known to give false information just to stop the torture. And the way the events play out do not support the efficiency of torture either, rendering some of the criticism redundant. The two most crucial pieces of information in the film, come about not through torture, but by giving people what they want – in one case a meal and a cigarette; in another, a Lamborghini. So in the end, Biology may not be reliable but everyone does have a price. The most telling though is the third one, a piece of crucial intelligence that got buried in piles and piles of info, found later by a lower level operative purely by chance. Human Error, they call it. How frustrating is that?
Equally frustrating is the bureaucracy. The film stays away from highlighting things with neon signs, choosing not to spoon feed. The investigation, the bureaucratic hurdles and negotiations, the leads that don’t lead anywhere, all happen casually. So does the change of top office and therefore strategy. But the film treats it as a throwaway line, cutting briefly to an interview of Obama after he assumed office, declaring on national television that the US will not torture. The people in the room take in this info quietly and resume their discussion. If they are having an “oh, shit!” moment, they don’t show it. But we know they probably are, Dan tells Maya a little later that she doesn’t want to be the last one holding the dog caller when the oversight committee comes. They have a new boss and a new company policy, and they roll with it, like good little employees.
All of this makes it sound like a slow little investigative piece, but it is not. Bigelow’s biggest achievement is keeping the tension alive throughout. The last 20 minutes of course, recreate the events of the night when the SEAL team landed in the compound in Abbottabad. We know exactly what’s going to happen, but we are on the edge of our seats throughout. We watch most of the action from the vantage point of the team members, in night vision. But it is all too real, the camera work is excellent and all the little details of the raid are superbly captured, including the terror of the women and children, who are the collateral damage here. The film also treats the final victory with a sombre and professional approach. Everybody is overcome by the weight of what has happened, but not at the cost of the task at hand. They bring back the body and immediately get to sorting the other materials picked up during the raid. It is left to Maya to provide visual confirmation of the body, and wouldn’t we like to know what she is thinking, but she remains as inscrutable as ever.
I like The Hurt Locker well enough. But the most haunting visual fro that move for me was the very last image of Renner standing in the middle of a huge all-american supermarket, looking lost. The most haunting image here too plays out similarly, Maya boarding an empty military aircraft and the pilot asking her where she’d like to go. She has no response to that. The tears finally come, but is she sad, happy, relieved or just lost? She told the CIA director earlier in the film that she has done nothing except chase Bin Laden. Now that she has completed the only mission she ever had in her life, can she go on? And to what end?