Few films in recent memory have generated as much pre-release controversy as the latest directorial offering of Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar winning helmer of “The Hurt Locker”. Accusations which range from the glorification of war, supporting the effectiveness of torture, endorsement of the policies of both the previous AND the present presidential administrations, and divulging military, intelligence and state secrets have been aimed at the film and its makers since long before its release (limited: 12/19/12 and nationwide USA: 1/11/13). The closest approximation that I can recall would be Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004, which outraged the Jewish community, several Christian sects, ‘anti-violence in cinema’ activists and numerous historians.
The similarities of the reactions are as stark as the differences in the two films, and while Gibson’s focus was clearly to relay one version of a story, Bigelow’s is quite the opposite: it is rather an examination of situation, and an exploration of effort and investigation, which allows the audience to gaze at a mission, a manhunt for the world’s Most Wanted mass murderer, drawing their own conclusions regarding strategies used, policies executed, human nature and delivered justice. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a procedural crime thriller, far closer in form to David Fincher’s “Zodiac”, or even Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion”, than to any war action film, such as last year’s “Act Of Valor” or even Bigelow’s intense Iraq War drama, “The Hurt Locker”.
Whether it is a clan of vampires (“Near Dark”), a Cold War era Russian nuclear submarine crew (“K-19: The Widowmaker”) or a US Army elite bomb unit (“The Hurt Locker”), Bigelow (pictured left) is masterful in using omniscient observational narrative while placing the audience deeply within the psychology and motivations of those in occupations many of us cannot possibly imagine. She excels at creating the overt recognition of conflict, and deftly expressing each character’s specified and sublimated reactions to them. “Zero Dark Thirty” features immediate as well as existential crises, driving its main protagonist, the young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), between proximal and potential threats. We observe Maya and her colleagues follow confusing, conflicting and uncertain pathways toward dead-ends, lethal traps and further obstacles in their pursuit “of the Disappeared Ones”, al-Qaeda’s top members and ultimately Osama Bin Laden.
Within a historical narrative, we find what anthropologist Clifford Geertz often described as the Large and Small Traditions, dealing (respectively) with the lasting impact of an action or decision, and the means in which those were carried out by the people we do not name or honor. Wars have deep effects on a society, but it is how the campaign affects those waging it, their individual lives and psychologies, that has been the concern of Bigelow’s last two films. “The Hurt Locker” was a deep exploration of male psychology during wartime; its primary perspectives were through the unit of men, centered on the experiences of SFC William James, played by Jeremy Renner. The “unit” in “Zero Dark Thirty” is of a wider scale, yet the focal point is Jessica Chastain’s Maya, who doggedly pursues all available leads toward her goal. The parallels between the occupations of the protagonists in both films exists within their acceptance and embrace of the necessity of their given roles in a wider conflict, but it is the contrasts that are notable, and these are expressed in a welcome and unconventional manner.
The machismo of “The Hurt Locker”’s all-male unit is a constant projection of the characters’ struggle against their vulnerabilities and fears amidst the danger of their daily duties. But “Zero Dark Thirty”’s Maya can do no such thing: all focus and energy must be internalized, applied toward the task of interpreting intelligence data. The difference in story structure and theme between the two films serves as the mirror to our own sociological self-narratives: we reacted and now need resolution. How is this achieved? Perhaps the varying criticisms of the film emanate from the level of closure we feel individually, or if we feel this at all.
The procedural methods and psychology of characters has been explored by Bigelow (pictured left) in “Point Break”, “K-19” and “The Hurt Locker”, but this is unveiled with a separate dexterity, coupled with restraint, in “Zero Dark Thirty”. The film is neither an apology for the Bush administration’s detainee policy, nor praise for the current administration’s decision to greenlight the operation, nor is it a glorification of war. All of these criticisms seem to center on one aspect, or a small sample of actions, within the story. The investigative procedure takes on the problem solving, unraveling of the dilemma style of “Contagion”, and has nothing of the heroic propaganda driven narrative of something like “Act of Valor”.
It is commonly accepted at this point that practices repugnant to the Geneva Convention, such as waterboarding, stress positions and sleep deprivation took place during the early period of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. This makes its way into the narrative, but the filmmakers take no stance on the policy, instead portraying it as a tool used by the interrogative agents, one that yields intelligence which may or may not be useful. Mention of the political shift toward abandonment of these methods is made as CIA interrogator Dan (played with dynamism by Jason Clarke) and Maya discuss the future of the operations. But there is no tangible context within the film of the national debate on torture, the war on terror, the shifting landscape of opinion, rather only how it affects the ground teams, operational viability, and top-down decision making.
There has also been significant controversy over perceived intelligence leaks to the filmmakers by the Obama administration. This does not seem credible to me, given that there is no demonstrated preference given to Obama’s policies over Bush’s, no internal applause, no reference by any character to anyone specific to the present administration as being more favorable to their entreaties. These are all handled as aspects of the chronology alone: when there was compelling evidence of Bin Laden’s presence, then plans were put in motion.
As a work of cinema, “Zero Dark Thirty” is an exquisitely crafted thriller, using the audience’s own curiosity and emotions to accompany the characters during their investigative procedure, tradecraft, intelligence and special operations.
Opening in darkness, with the sounds of broadcasts, phone calls and horrors of the 9/11 attacks, the chapters of scenes, based on the progression and context of the operation, subdivide the narrative, offering some foreshadowing, and predictors of what we have known or been told. As led through the investigation, the hunt for Bin Laden, the audience is given a glimpse behind the curtain: just as an accountant is not a collection of numbers, intelligence agents are not a black bag of tricks. They are skilled workers who do a job. Their story, or a semblance of it, is used to demonstrate that it is the Small Tradition which creates the Large, which we through various means are informs our interpretation of events, our sense of self, and the evolution of our cultural conscience. Chastain’s Maya demonstrates a performance as complex and sublimated as anything she has done. Much as within the film itself, it is what takes place internally and is open to interpretation that shows the highest craftsmanship. “Zero Dark Thirty” is in my opinion the very best of Kathryn Bigelow’s films, and one which I believe is intended to be a tool of self-analysis, rather than a vehicle to promote any specific ideology or policy.
I give the film my highest recommendation, and have urged filmmakers, academics and all laypersons to view it with a discerning eye, and an open mind.