A Grim, Amoral Account of the Greatest Manhunt in American History
#30: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
It’s been 15 years since 9/11. An entire generation of children – including most of my own – have always and only known a post 9-11 America, a world of “Homeland security” and the “war on terror”. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, following one CIA agent’s relentless search for Osama Bin Laden, already seems like a dim historical artifact. Remember when we thought that taking out the head of Al Qaeda would somehow be the decisive victory against terrorism? The cheering that erupted at the news of Bin Laden’s death has subsided in the ensuing years, with the continued survival of Al Quaeda and the rise of other terror networks like Al Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIS.
It’s to director Kathryn Bigelow’s credit that Zero Dark Thirty makes no grand claims for what Bin Laden’s death would actually accomplish. It’s not that kind of film. It’s a grim, dark, obsessive look into what we as a country were willing to do in retaliation for 9-11. “Enhanced interrogation” is depicted for what it is – torture – and when Bin Laden is finally found in Pakistan, both he and several others in the compound are dispatched with ruthless efficiency. The morality of the actions is barely addressed, with the Abu Gharib revelations and public outrage serving only as obstacles to the CIA agents on the ground. Maya (Jessica Chastain), the film’s central character, will do whatever is necessary to find her prey. It is, in fact, her singular purpose. Stationed in Pakistan, she has no real friends aside from other agents, and even they’re worried about her single-mindedness and isolation. Maya was recruited out of high school by the CIA, and when asked by the head of the CIA what she’s done for the agency besides hunt Bin Laden, Maya answered truthfully, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.”
The morality of the actions is barely addressed, with the Abu Gharib revelations and public outrage serving only as obstacles to the CIA agents on the ground. Maya (Jessica Chastain), the film’s central character, will do whatever is necessary to find her prey. It is, in fact, her singular purpose.
Chastain is terrific as Maya, simultaneously brittle and steely. Her pale skin and shadowed eyes hint at sleepless nights, but she speaks little and shows even less emotion, except when higher ups get in the way of her quest. At one point, walking past her desk, we are given a glimpse of Maya in a photo with a child, smiling. It seems so out of character for this remote and solitary woman that it’s genuinely confusing.
Bigelow has an effective coldness to her directing. The story,which spans several years, is told in an episodic fashion with minimal exposition. There is also little sentimentality to Zero Dark Thirty and no flag waving. Maybe America needed this particular win and required Bin Laden’s corpse, but it wasn’t an uncomplicated victory, certainly not morally. We paid a price in many ways for this act of retribution, and we’re still paying.
It should be noted that Zero Dark Thirty makes a direct connection between the torture of prisoners by intelligence officers and the information that leads to the killing of Bin Laden. The Senate Intelligence Committee which examined the circumstances around Bin Laden’s death rejected the idea that enhanced interrogations were a “central component” in finding Bin Laden. Drawing that link, knowing that many viewers would watch the movie and accept at face value that torture “worked” in this case, was a deeply questionable choice on Bigelow’s part. Let the viewer beware: as is so often the case in movies based on historical events, the story has been spun.
Bonus Pick: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)/English & Urdu
Director: Mira Nair
It’s a deeply flawed movie, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist still serves as an interesting companion piece to Zero Dark Thirty. Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) directed, with a script adapted from the novel by the author, Mohsin Hamid. The film tells the story of a young Pakistani, Changez (Riz Ahmed), who pursues the American dream in New York, only to find that dream curdling post-9/11, when his skin color, name, and home country are suddenly causes for suspicion in the land he’s come to love. This story is told sideways through a series of flashback, with the framing device a lengthy conversation, in Pakistan, between Changez and an expatriate journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). The Reluctant Fundamentalist give us insight into the tense climate in post-9/11 New York – not just the extreme experiences of false arrest or being strip searched at an airport, but the thinly veiled hostilities Changez encounters, such as the negative reactions he receives when he grows a beard. The film succumbs to a ponderous, moralizing tone, but it at least points us toward empathy for peaceful Muslims in this “age of terror”.