The screen is black, the walls are black, the voices are black. The voices sound confused and frightened. They overlap, cutting in and out, emanating from the walls and the ceiling and the floor and from your very seat. You want it to stop, you want it to be over, you tell yourself to just look away but you can’t because the screen is empty and your mind is full.
This is Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for 2009’s The Hurt Locker, is arguably the most suspense-savvy filmmaker since Hitchcock himself. She is a master at making you as uncomfortable as possible, at ratcheting up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable. Zero Dark Thirty is not an easy to movie to watch, and I can’t say I enjoyed myself. This is a challenging, and at times disturbing film, but it’s also a masterful muddlement of blunt, detached journalism and electric, resourceful storytelling.
Bigelow opens the movie with the aforementioned 9/11 emergency dispatch calls, and she doesn’t allow us time to breathe. We are plunged into the gritty grunge of the CIA’s Black Site in Pakistan, one of many prison complexes across the Middle East specifically designed for the manipulation and interrogation of terrorist detainees. The cell we are shoved into is dank and dimly lit, with only a grubby pail and an ominous cooler lying in the corner to keep its prisoner company. He is strung by his hands and feet to the floor and ceiling as he’s if a fly strewn across a spider’s invisible web.
There are two disparate spiders circling their prey. Dan (Jason Clarke) is a beefy, bearded CIA agent who calls his prisoner “bro” and affectionately plays with the monkeys kept outside the compound. Maya (Jessica Chastain) has just arrived from Washington and lurks in the shadows, her queasy unease masked by the well-pruned visage of a woman who sees everything but betrays nothing.
Dan tells the al Qaeda operative that he does not like using torture to extract information, but that if he hears a lie he shall be forced to, ah, enhance his interrogation methods. The prisoner is silent. Maya fills a bucket with water. The prisoner cries out in pain.
Clarke plays a man who is ferocious and feral, the epitome of American arrogance and animalistic aggression. Yet he is never vile or unsympathetic, for we glimpse in his brief conversations with Maya that he recognizes the necessity but also the brutality of his vocation. In contrast, Maya is intelligent and analytical, distant and dispassionate. She never questions the CIA’s methods, and her coldness slowly turns into a kind of madness.
Maya is fixated on an al Qaeda courier named Abu Ahmed, who numerous detainees allege is the missing link between key organization officials and bin Laden himself. Maya bets on Abu Ahmed and hopes for the jackpot. The large majority of the film is her poker game – bluffing, folding, winning, losing, always staring into the cold, hard eyes of the man across the table. The CIA analysts are cramped into small, yellowing office walls and shabby boardrooms, rattling off theories and retorts with lightning quick Sorkinian speed. They have plastered the faces of the countless high-ranking al Qaeda officials at large over every inch of their offices. Screenwriter Mark Boal fills the film with anonymous names and complex connections, murky machinations and silent suspicion. For anyone without formal training in espionage, it can all get rather confusing, but like All the President’s Men it’s not so much the information conveyed in each scene that’s important but the beats and emotions from moment to moment.
It goes without saying that the performances in this film are magnificent. Chastain is fierce and vulnerable, screaming and crying with the same ease and power. Maya’s emotional journey throughout the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of American morale – as well as American morality. Jason Clarke acts his all through the eyes and facial muscles in a curiously overlooked performance that’s certain to catapult him to fame, or at the very least infamy. Mark Strong and Kyle Chandler portray dueling sides of the same CIA coin, but both are overshadowed by James Gandolfini’s extended cameo as the legendary Leon Panetta, who’s often referred to simply as the Director.
One of the finest members of Zero Dark Thirty's ensemble is surely Jennifer Ehle, as an analyst named Jessica who befriends Maya after overcoming an initial rivalry. There is a sequence in which Ehle's character must conference with a key source at a CIA compound, hoping the defector will reveal the location of bin Laden himself. The scene is masterfully executed. Maya and Jessica text feverishly, littering their conversation – about a terrorist organization – with emoticons and exclamation points. A car approaches the gate, and Jessica orders the guards to stand down just this once lest they scare away her source. A sickening sense of dread fills our stomach. The anticipation in Jennifer Ehle's quivering countenance is tangible. Bigelow allows for a rare unbroken shot as the car rolls through barricades under the hot Afghan sun.
I have decried the use of shaky cam in films like Les Misérables and Green Zone for their justification of haphazard filmmaking with flimsy claims to the elusive idyll of realism. Kathryn Bigelow does not make films with realism in mind – they are nightmares of the fiery obsession kept closely guarded by long-extinguished protagonists. Her handheld camerawork defies conventional rules of composition; it establishes the wisp of a clean, sturdy shot and quickly overturns it, wryly tricking her audience in much the same way the film’s protagonists operate.
The film very well could’ve ended with a shot that appears two thirds of the way into the film, the moment when Maya watches the SEAL Team Six chopper commence its fateful mission. Instead, Bigelow had the guts to epitomize Zero Dark Thirty’s intense and exhilarating dramatic recreation of history with a sequence that is visceral, engaging, and utterly mesmerizing. It’s true that the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound is essentially a group of anonymous heroes against an anonymous villain, and with a lesser auteur at the helm this might’ve been a thorny flaw in the film’s structure. Not here. Alexandre Desplat’s muted score reverberates quietly through a series of establishing shots of the helicopters inching through the vast, shadowy Afghan mountains. Throughout the sequence, we are terrified, we are repulsed, and we are in awe.
A small minority of critics and a large majority of political pundits with an itchy outrage finger have declared Zero Dark Thirty to be the work of depraved, radical filmmakers seeking to generate a nefarious bonfire of rah-rah-rahs for either – depending on who you ask – a justification of Bush administration torture, a celebration of Obama administration intelligence operations, or plain old personal publicity. I have even heard the word ‘fascistic’ whispered in some corners. Zero Dark Thirty is not a sly propaganda film, nor is it a gleeful revenge picture. The CIA agents depicted never question whether it is acceptable to gain information via torture, nor whether revenge is the acceptable response to al Qaeda – after all, the film was previously titled Kill Bin Laden. The film depicts a world where there is seemingly no alternative to violence, where desperation justifies inhumane acts, and where there is no concept of allies or friends, only enemies. That’s hardly endorsement.
Did the end justify the means? Maya doesn’t know, and if Bigelow and Boal do they certainly won’t tell us. This is, after all, history – entertaining, deplorable, and riddled with paradoxes of logic, emotion, and ethics. It’s also marvelously melancholy filmmaking. Zero Dark Thirty makes no statement about the politics or the semantics of the hunt for bin Laden. It sadly tells us that, for better or worse, we will never forgive, and we will never, ever forget.