In The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow exhibited an expert feel for the milieu of a bomb disposal team in early post-Saddam Iraq. While her depiction of the mechanics of the team was the subject of debate, the desolation and immediacy of her scenarios was spot on, evoking the overburdened and overwhelmed sensibility of better-equipped invading/liberating armies since the time of the Romans. What kept The Hurt Locker from being a great film was the simplistic protagonist, Jeremy Renner, a danger freak and little more, with whom we were required to spend too much time.
In Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow again utilizes a simplistic heroine, CIA officer Jessica Chastain, whose entire persona is a relentless “get bin Laden” zeal. Fortunately, the story Bigelow is telling is an intricate intelligence bureaucracy procedural and Chastain is progressively morphed from the driver of the story to an observer. To her credit, she remains disciplined and does not stray from the confines of her role. Chastain is emblematic of the effort and the desire to fight al Qaeda and eliminate its leader, and the film has refreshingly little interest in what makes her tick, her relationship with men, etc . . . the story is quite enough. This film is much like United 93, authentic, thoughtful, and gripping, even though we know the end.
Two other aspects make this picture extraordinary. First, it deals with politics in a subtle yet effective manner, opening with a clutter of 911 calls on 9-11, which creates the urgency necessary to begin the story, and acknowledging certain political realities (the failure of the CIA on WMD, the changing domestic political tenor on enhanced interrogation, and the Obama administration’s moves with regard to same) without gettng bogged down in their import or advocating for any particular position.
Second, of some controversy, Bigelow shows torture. Torture assuredly occurred and was also assuredly of value in the war against al Qaeda. Just ask new National Security Advisor John Brennan: “There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives.” The histrionic attacks on Bigelow’s film because it merely shows torture demonstrate the exact false and forced narrative that Zero Dark Thirty eschews. It is depressing that Bigelow had to actually say, “”Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Usama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore.”
Bigelow’s statement is echoed by Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down: “Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America’s messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty is right to portray that fact.”
Juxtapose the statements of Bigelow and Bowden with the criticism of actor and activist David Clennon (“Torture is an appalling crime under any circumstances. ‘Zero’ never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal”) and you have the difference between Zero Dark Thirty and the spate of shit message movies that Hollywood churns out every year to show us the right path. The Clennons are terrified. By showing that torture may have gotten certain results, sweet Lord Almighty, we have endorsed torture, which we cannot hope to condemn unless we show it was a masochistic folly of absolutely no intelligence value.
Perhaps we can delete the great line where one interrogator tells Chastain to be careful because the domestic political winds are shifting and she doesn’t want to be “the last one holding a dog collar” and substitute it with, “you know, upon reflection, this stuff we’ve been doing . . . It’s just morally wrong and maybe even criminal.”