Many of the more talked-about movies this season concern themselves with barbarity, in one manifestation or another. “Lincoln,” is about slavery; “Argo,” imperialism, radical fundamentalism, sociopathic politics; “Les Misérables”—where can you even begin? They are very different movies, of course, but they share a common impulse: Regarding the inhuman, the uncivilized or the cruel, they are pretty much against it.
Zero Dark Thirty, the much-discussed thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, takes a slightly different point of view. As many readers already know, the film—directed by the Oscar-winning Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) and written by her partner/producer Mark Boal—proffers a shall-we-say generous view of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques so popular with the Bush administration in the understandably hysterical moment following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. It should be said, right away, that the film is gripping, masterfully executed, engaging, revelatory and enormously entertaining. It also takes the strategically brilliant dramatic tact of steering all the audience’s emotional equity into one character, Maya, an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency, whose single-mindedness would earn the admiration of al Qaeda. As played by the seemingly omnipresent Jessica Chastain, Maya is attractive, vulnerable and sympathetic enough to put flesh and blood on a story that is largely about electronic surveillance, track-and-trace technology and the less-than-cinematic wonders of G.P.S.
It should also be said that Chastain, who has been accused in some quarters of giving a “chilly” or “remote” performance, does exactly what she is supposed to do. Maya is something close to a lunatic, manically engaged in finding the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks to a degree that precludes her having any other life. One could say that Bigelow and Boal do not give us enough information about Maya, not enough backstory. But there isn’t any. As we learn, she was recruited out of high school to join the C.I.A. and has been religiously devoted to bin Laden ever since. (If there’s romance in “Zero Dark Thirty” it is between hunter and prey.) Her C.I.A. boss, played by James Gandolfini, an unlikely sub for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, asks her what she has done for the agency besides hunt for bin Laden. “I’ve done nothing else,” she says. She’s Nancy Drew, with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In a very encouraging sense, Maya is a stand-in for an America that was, and seemingly is (see: drones), willing to abandon democratic principles to kill its enemies.
But there also seems very little doubt that Bigelow and Boal drank the intelligence community Kool-Aid. When it was learned early on that the “Zero Dark Thirty” project was receiving privileged access to Department of Defense and C.I.A. information surrounding the bin Laden pursuit, there was a knee-jerk outcry among certain congressional Republicans that a pro-Obama film was in the works. (The project was under way well before bin Laden’s 2011 killing and had to be quickly refashioned.) The fears were unfounded. President Barack Obama, circa 2009, does make an appearance in the film, on a television, decrying the use of torture and the damage it has done to America’s moral standing in the world. The film shakes its head in disgust.
The head-shaking should be on the other side of the screen. Without going into too much excruciating detail, suffice to say that “Zero Dark Thirty” reaches the indirect but unavoidable conclusion that torture worked, that the key piece of information that led to bin Laden was achieved through waterboarding and the variety of deprivations suffered by detainees. It also suggests, in a manner that only film can do, that a government that forbids enhanced interrogation is tying the hands of its overseas operatives, who have much more important things to worry about than petty politics back home.
This ignores the conclusions reached by the petty politicians on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who includ John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona. Their study of the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program concluded—following the examination of more than 6 million pages of records from the intelligence community—that the C.I.A. did not obtain its first clues about the identity of bin Laden’s courier from “C.I.A. detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.”
But saying otherwise certainly makes for exhilarating cinema. The torture scenes that follow the very opening of the movie—a series of voices in the darkness, from people trapped in the World Trade Center, and whose plight deftly sets up the movie’s revenge mechanism—are deeply disturbing. They dehumanize the “heroes” as much as the “villains”—which was one of the critical findings, following the investigations into the Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantánamo detention centers. One of the things “Zero Dark Thirty” does not do is a dance of victory after the death of bin Laden. No one is more conflicted in the end than Maya, who has spent ten years and her entire young adulthood in search of a something that makes her feel, after all the intrigue, violence and loss, like she’s suspended in a vacuum.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a magnificent movie, if we ignore the moral ambiguities. But can we? Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a rabid anti-Semite, Ezra Pound was a fascist, Leni Riefenstahl was a propagandist for Hitler. But no reasonable person would say they were not great artists, or that their work is not worth viewing or reading, albeit with caution. All art is about truth and each artist arrives at his or her own version, presumably after careful consideration of the alternatives (which, perhaps, is why fundamentalists are not usually artists, and Hitler was a bad painter). What adds to the disturbance surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty” is its makers’ insistence that what they have done is both truth and just a movie. Bigelow has repeatedly called her new work a “reported film,” and she wields a palette of documentary techniques in applying a coat of veracity to her time-compressed story. At the same time, she and Boal—who reported the reported film—counter accusations of being pro-torture (or, rather, not vehemently enough against it) with the claim that their movie is told from the perspective of the participants, and therefore should be viewed with the cocked eyebrow with which we address any work of fiction.
Can they have it both ways? Of course they can. And they do. Several critics groups, including the New York Film Critics Circle (to which this reviewer belongs) have named it the best picture of 2012, even if a certain voter’s remorse seems to have settled in. It will be interesting to see whether Hollywood, with its allegedly leftist leanings, will endorse a film that takes such a controversial position, and whose director seems genuinely dismayed at the reactions she has gotten. One way of defining art, after all, is something that achieves exactly the effect its maker intended. If ambiguity was Bigelow’s intention, she has created a masterpiece.