Historical fiction is perilous ground for filmmakers, even if you’re a big-name director (see: Stone, Oliver), with critics ever eager to pounce on any factual elasticities. Kathryn Bigelow herself has found no shortage of detractors. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post complains that the director “gets stuck in a no man’s land between the real and the fictional,” while in a somewhat friendlier piece, the Long Island Press notes that “Bigelow, the only female action thriller director around, is one tough chick with a camera.”
Both remarks touch on something unstable at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow’s latest ripped-from-the-headlines thriller—which is funny, since both were published ten years ago in reference to K-19: The Widowmaker, the intruguing docudrama (and commercial flop) that Bigelow directed in 2002. So perhaps Bigelow and her adherents can take comfort in the knowledge that adapting real-life events to the screen will sometimes bring on the haters at an even higher rate than the most bumbling film version of a beloved novel.
Bigelow is indeed “one tough chick with a camera,” and Zero Dark Thirty is the taut thriller that audiences have every right to expect from the director of The Hurt Locker, which won Oscars for best picture and best director. (Bigelow replicated this success overseas, earning BAFTA awards for best film and best director.) Three years later, again working in tandem with screenwriter Mark Boal (who won Best Screenplay for The Hurt Locker), Bigelow traces the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. Maya (Jessica Chastain), the intelligence operative at the center of the film, shuttles back and forth between Islamabad, Washington, and various CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan and northern Europe as she pieces together wiretaps and detainee intel with a singularity of focus that verges on extremism. Critics have called the film a “procedural” (when they’re not calling it something rather more vitriolic), but really it’s the stop-motion diary of a brilliant obsessive, played close to the vest by the impeccable Chastain. The supporting cast is excellent but (equally important) free enough of capital-A Actors so as not to distract from the immersive storyline. Among the standouts are Kyle Chandler as Islamabad bureau chief, Jason Clarke as an operative who calls his detainees “bro,” and Chris Pratt (of Parks & Recreation) as one of the SEALs on Operation Neptune Spear, the scalpel-precision strike in Abottabad that killed Bin Laden. After two hours of intelligence briefings, arguments between CIA suits, major acts of terror in London and Islamabad, and brutal interrogation scenes, the final sequence is a technical marvel—and something of a revelation. It’s only the really good films, after all, that can quicken your pulse even when you know how the cards will fall.
The movie’s opening frame reminds viewers that Boal’s story is drawn from “first person accounts,” and here’s where things get sticky. Bigelow has already earned best-film honors from the New York Film Critics’ Circle (and similar awards elsewhere), but she is also drawing splenetic criticism from those who call her a torture apologist. Senators Diane Feinstein, Democrat Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have both made public statements debunking the notion that any intel leading to the identification of Abu Achmed al-Kuwaiti, Bin Laden’s courier, was gleaned through “enhanced interrogation,” while former CIA chief and current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has distanced himself from the film by asserting that he didn’t leak a shred of classified material to Bigelow. (In the movie, James Gandolfini makes three brief but quite charming appearances as Panetta.) That politicians, high-profile intelligence operatives, and film critics alike have axes to grind is nothing new, but it’s an asterisk we should append to the Feinstein/McCain denunciations. Boal himself interviewed ground-level operatives who, speaking anonymously rather than through a press secretary, may well have offered less simple and more faithful accounts than the politicos.
So, what do we truly know? Boal and Bigelow talked to a number of highly knowledgeable sources and are billing their film, in part, as reportage. These journalistic aspirations wouldn’t be a publicity problem if the film’s first act didn’t lean so heavily on sickening scenes of detainee torture: waterboarding, enclosure in a hideously small “confinement box,” genital exposure, dog-collaring, and subjection to very bad American heavy metal at very high volumes. But Zero Dark remains tantalizingly ambiguous about just how useful “enhanced” interrogatory techniques really were. If anything, the underlying message is that Maya’s pavement-pounding and a willingness to talk impertinently to her superiors when necessary were the crucial factors in nailing the world’s most-wanted terrorist.
But if torture were the only thing worth talking about here, we wouldn’t even be talking about it—because what makes the film so dangerous is that it’s very, very good. (Like, Hurt Locker good.) And if we wish to make an honest assessment of Zero Dark Thirty’s moral failures, we need to view them not merely in terms of contemporary politics, but in terms of narrative and aesthetic concerns as well. The torture of Muslims in Zero Dark serves the same purpose as the shell-fracking of homesick, pre-PTSD warriors in Hurt Locker: the pain of watching these guys is a message unto itself, independent even from historical perspectives. This pain verges on the purest experience cinema can offer. It enlists the audience in both sides of the struggle—brown, white, Muslim, Christian—and awakens or reinforces a sense of moral doubt even in the face of tactical certainty.
In fact, the scenes that critics from the New Yorker to Big Hollywood are sniping at represent a pretty clear anti-torture PSA—one all the more devastating because a part of us (one that we do our best to deny) roots for the torturers, and for Chastain, whose character evolves from a prim, girl-scout squeamishness to a grim acceptance that, hey, this is just how the Agency works these days. If Bigelow had taken an overt or vocal “stance” against torture, we’d be watching an exercise in filmic activism. (And what could be more tedious or ineffectual?) Instead, we get a thriller that burns at just the right speed. Viewed through the prism of humanitarian politics, Bigelow has perhaps done something not altogether responsible. But viewed as a film—which, you know, it is—Zero Dark Thirty and its representation of torture are not only gripping but necessary. When’s the last time we’ve had anything resembling a “national conversation”—a cherished term of art in the 21st century—about torture? The only two answers are the three-week period following the assassination of Bin Laden in May of 2011, and the 2008 Republican presidential primary season.
Bigelow has said of “enhanced interrogation”: “I wish it was not part of our history. But it was.” The director may possibly have gotten this history a bit muddled in the retelling. But her stark scenes of interrogation cells are a perverse masterpiece of their own. That they have reenergized the national discourse is a testament not only to the power of the film, but also to the unusually high expectations we hold for Bigelow. Count it as a blessing that “one tough chick with a camera” can still kick up a ruckus—all while making one of the best films of the year. Feel a little queasy afterwards? Good; that’s part of the point. Just take two Silver Linings Playbooks and call me in the morning.
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