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‘Zero Dark Thirty’: Kathryn Bigelow Shows Us the Things We Carried

Posted on Jan 11, 2013

By Susan Zakin

When “Zero Dark Thirty” opens nationally Friday, many moviegoers will already have made up their minds. It’s hard to remember a film, or a director, inspiring so much vitriol: histrionic self-righteousness on the left with author Naomi Wolf comparing director Kathryn Bigelow to German propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and accusations by the right that “Zero Dark Thirty” portrays the acting director of the CIA as a patsy. Even novelist Bret Easton Ellis got into the act, tweeting: “Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated.” Ellis apologized, saying he was drunk and hadn’t actually seen the film, an admission that at least had the virtue of being amusing, and no more mindless than most of the furor.

Related: Read Truthdig’s review of “Zero Dark Thirty” by Richard Schickel.

A film about events this recent and emotionally charged cannot escape debate, but the most controversial scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty” have been misrepresented, and the fury directed at Bigelow is both jarring and familiar. Call it Hillary Clinton syndrome and you might be right. Now that Hillary is a meme with dark glasses, BlackBerry and (finally!) a commitment to hair length, Bigelow is this decade’s gender offender. For years, Bigelow has refused to answer questions about being a “woman” director, quietly going about her business of making odd, interesting, violent films. Now that she is successful, she is being put in her place.

But Bigelow’s sins go beyond offending America’s version of the Taliban. The reaction to “Zero Dark Thirty” is reminiscent of a child’s tantrum when a parent forgets part of an often-repeated story. Bigelow’s real transgression is refusing to employ the familiar language of American cinema. Even Oliver Stone’s antiheroes provide a tragic but ultimately triumphalist narrative. What Bigelow does is something else entirely.

In factual terms, “Zero Dark Thirty” tells the story of what Andrew O’Hehir of Salon calls “the secret history of spycraft” that led from Sept. 11, 2001, to the Osama bin Laden raid on May 1, 2011. The film opens with a black screen and audiotapes from 9/11. A less ambitious filmmaker might have started with the overly familiar footage of the twin towers falling. Bigelow’s elegant, straight-outta-art-school move sets the mood of well-crafted understatement that will turn out to be endemic both to the film’s structure and its message.

After this preface, the action starts at full throttle. Maya, a fresh recruit to the CIA, is attending a torture session in a “black” prison. As many reviewers have pointed out, we get no backstory on Maya, who is played by Jessica Chastain. She doesn’t seem to have a life, or if she does, she isn’t going to tell us about it. (Much like Bigelow herself, who reportedly just ended a 10-year relationship with Mark Boal, the ex-journo who wrote both “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” but never confirmed that they were a couple.)

The present tense, so shallow in literature, turns out to be remarkably effective in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Maya winces at the torture of an Arab detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb), subtly but definitively establishing her character. Noticeable to the audience but slight enough for Ammar to miss, Chastain’s gesture tells us that despite her novice status, Maya can tamp down her feelings to get the job done. It’s not something that effort alone could accomplish. It’s her nature.

What makes Maya’s self-control more impressive is that the torture scenes are so hard to watch. (Both Chastain and Bigelow told interviewers they were difficult to film.) Ammar is beaten, waterboarded (sans board), sexually abused, subjected to deafening heavy metal, and locked in a cabinet. It’s not hard to believe the interrogator, Dan (Jason Clarke), when he tells Ammar that everyone breaks eventually. “It’s biology,” he says.

Is this posturing or truth? Like many aspects of torture in the film, there’s no clear answer. Despite Dan’s words, Ammar, a midlevel al-Qaida bagman, does not confess under torture. He talks to Dan and Maya only after Maya suggests they relax the pressure, and deceive him about the success of a terrorist attack. They let Ammar outside, feed him and chat casually at a picnic table.

The film is also not entirely clear about the value of the information Ammar gives them. With so much ambiguity, it’s difficult to understand how anyone could view the film as a ringing endorsement of torture. The ambiguity itself was objectionable to Jane Mayer, a reporter for The New Yorker, who compared “Zero Dark Thirty” unfavorably to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Mayer called Bigelow’s film “devoid” of moral context, in part because, in her words, Boal and Bigelow were guilty of “excising” the country’s moral debate over torture. In fact, the opposite is true. The film barreled straight into the most potentially explosive subject in its opening scenes.

Torture is a fact of life, and, often, of war. More to the point, torture is a fact of life in America’s war on terror; it played a central role in intelligence gathering by the United States for the better part of a decade and instigated a profound questioning of our national identity.  In terms of both verisimilitude and dramatic structure, Bigelow and Boal made the inevitable choice to include depictions of torture in the film. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they have been condemned by groups of people who vehemently disagree with each other. If torture had simply “worked,” the film would have been exactly the kind of ooh-rah jingoistic propaganda that Bigelow’s harshest critics have in mind. If it hadn’t, it would have been a finger-wagging morality tale. The title borrows from military jargon—Zero Dark Thirty is shorthand for half past midnight. But it’s hard not to think that the clock in question marks the winding down of the American empire, or at the very least, tells us that we have passed the halfway point. 

As they did in the film’s haunting opening, Boal and Bigelow eschewed cliché when dealing with torture, mercifully sparing us the deadly dull scene of generals seated around a long table as the president intones: “Gentlemen, what would you have me do?” With no easy answers, the audience must confront the same ugly decisions as the interrogators, and the country.

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