I saw Zero Dark Thirty, Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow's so-far more discussed than seen portrait of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, about a month ago, just before the controversy over the film's depiction of torture erupted. I left the theater troubled by what happens in the film's early interrogation sequences but entirely untroubled by the way the film treated this material.
Because I consider the moral obscenity of torture to be sufficient reason for opposition, regardless of disputed claims about its efficacy, I wasn't bothered by the film's acknowledgement that this happened and that some operatives wanted it as an option or, depending on your interpretation, its assertion that maybe — maybe — it yielded some measure of actionable return. And what Zero Dark Thirty shows — a CIA detainee at an unidentified black site, water-boarded, put in stress positions, etc. — is unlike other screen depictions of torture. It's shown with non-exploitative dispassion and subtle audience complicity while also making the interactions feel awfully intimate and human. And it's informed by what has come immediately before, opening audio from what seems to be a real 911 call from the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Using this material is a nervy choice, but in juxtaposing it with the film's torture sequences, Zero Dark Thirty implicitly links the practice with vengeance rather than with operational practicality. And that early linkage haunts the rest of the film.
Like The Hurt Locker, the film is a process-oriented depiction of professionals doing dangerous and important work. But where The Hurt Locker's bomb unit was depicted via a series of discrete missions, with — notably — larger goals and sense of progress elusive, Zero Dark Thirty has a narrative through-line, following a young, driven CIA analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain, superbly carrying a heavy load), who is apparently modeled on an actual figure involved in the hunt and who, much like her director, is a woman operating within a male-dominated sphere, fighting to get her bosses to green-light an expensive, risky personal project.
Zero Dark Thirty is essentially an investigative procedural about an obsessive search for knowledge, not unlike such touchstones as Zodiac or All the President's Men. And it has an impressive, immersive experiential heft, making much better use of its nearly three-hour running time than any competing award-season behemoth. Bigelow's visual sense is as assured and commanding as in The Hurt Locker but this time on an even bigger scale.
While Zero Dark Thirty may be an unusually journalistic work of art, it's still a work of art. The facts are important — and the film's privileging of a CIA perspective is as worthy of question as its depiction of torture, if not more so — but this is ultimately fiction that's after a greater truth about what happened in the decade between 9/11 and the killing of bin Laden and what it means. About the seeming necessity of the hunt and the ultimate lack of closure or satisfaction — or even justice? — the outcome provided.
In Zero Dark Thirty, this journey leads from the sobering opening juxtaposition to a compellingly non-cathartic climax at a home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where a SEAL team raid honors men at work while denying easy or simple notions of heroism. It ends with perhaps the film moment of the year (2012 or 2013, take your pick): a grave, spent, profoundly uncertain final image.
Zero Dark Thirty
Opening Friday, January 11th