'Zero Dark Thirty' offers entertainment, but no easy answers
"Zero Dark Thirty"
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
The Grade: A
In the great battle being waged in the media over the soul of "Zero Dark Thirty," it’s occurred to me that we seem to be losing track of what the movie is even really about. Anyone reading this already knows the film chronicles the CIA’s decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, but amidst all of the declarations over whether the film does or doesn’t endorse the use of torture, very few people seem willing to concede that neither answer is the right one.
What "Zero Dark Thirty" does is ask you to answer that question for yourself. And the question isn’t so much one of whether or not torture works (at least in this portrayal, it does), or whether or not the United States government used it (we probably did), but whether the ends justified the means. In her defense of the film, director Kathryn Bigelow wrote in The Los Angeles Times that she didn’t want to make a film about war without portraying the “moral consequences” that war entails. And that’s just one of many things that make "Zero Dark Thirty" a great film.
Most of the pundits lambasting "Zero Dark Thirty" for its use of torture are suggesting that, because the film shows key information being obtained through torture, the inescapable conclusion is that the film is supporting its use. But this denies the possibility of something beneficial ever occurring from a mistake. And these people aren’t watching the film closely, nor are they watching it carefully. (And sometimes they aren’t watching it at all; some of the “experts” that weighed in on the issue hadn’t even seen the film yet, as though just knowing torture was present in the film automatically indicated approval on behalf of the filmmakers.)
When "Inception" came out in the summer of 2010, I watched a different version of the same debate occur, and it blew my mind then just as it does now. Almost everyone who saw that film began having a definitive argument over the ending, about whether or not the top kept spinning, and by extension, whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was awake, or lost in an ever expanding dream labyrinth. And everyone having this argument was invariably suggesting not just that one conclusion was right and the other was wrong, but that there was a singularly correct conclusion to be drawn. Eventually the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, admitted in interviews that there was no right answer, and each viewer was meant to decide for themselves whether or not they thought the ending took place in a dream or in the waking world. And this, of course, pissed people off. What do you mean there isn’t an answer??
It is my belief (and Kathryn Bigelow’s own statements seem to support this) that "Zero Dark Thirty" takes an "Inception"-like position on the use of torture. And by that I mean it doesn’t take a position at all. It asks us to figure out our own position based on how we evaluate what we’ve seen. The film presents its facts (and whether or not they are facts is a whole other issue, one which I am woefully unqualified to comment on), and asks the viewer to consider their moral implications. And a few of those facts are the following: 1) torturing an Al Qaeda member in 2003 gave the CIA a name. And 2) several years later, the ensuing investigations of that name, as well as several other elements of data, eventually led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. So of course the assumption that many people are making is that the film suggests that because the torture proved beneficial, it was therefore justified, or at least acceptable. But why does that have to be the case? The film doesn’t make that argument, though its detractors certainly wish it did.
Kathryn Bigelow’s films have often been about main characters that struggle, or abjectly fail, at beginning a next chapter of their life. At the end of "Point Break" (a film that, in hindsight, feels like a minor masterpiece, because it seems like the first real example of the auteur theory for Bigelow), Patrick Swayze’s Adrenaline Zen God lets himself be crushed to death under a wave rather than face a life without surfing. In the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," the haunting final image is of a military bomb specialist going back into the fray by choice, because defusing bombs is apparently less stressful than buying cereal. But "Zero Dark Thirty" even trumps those great endings. Without spoiling too much, the film ends with not just one of the best final shots I’ve ever seen, but also on of the most penetrating. It’s an image that asks you to look into your own soul, and wonder whether it was all worth it, whether what was gained outweighs what was spent.
And Jessica Chastain (as Maya, the CIA analyst who spent ten years hunting for Bin Laden and made the key intelligence conclusions that led to him) absolutely owns that final image. Most films reach their emotional crescendo some time during the climax, but "Zero Dark Thirty" saves it for the last few moments, and whether or not it works is purely dependent on Chastain’s ability to get us inside her head. I had a conversation with someone recently who argued that Chastain’s performance, while good, wasn’t Oscar-worthy, because there was (his words) “no difficulty in it.” But imagine knowing that the artistic success of a three hour film about one of the most important intelligence operations in American history hinges on how well you convey the emotions on your face during a single shot. Sound easy? Jessica Chastain gives one of the most searing depictions of obsession you’ll ever see. At one point in the film, one of her CIA superiors asks her what else she’s done in her ten years with the agency besides hunt Bin Laden. “Nothing else,” she says, calm yet confident. “I’ve done nothing else.”
Like so many of the truly great films, "Zero Dark Thirty" combines impeccable craftsmanship with grand ambition and something important to say. And the important thing it says is that sometimes there are no easy answers. Sometimes people make hard choices that in retrospect might not seem justified. Or they might seem especially justified. It’s a topic worthy of discussion, both internally and publicly, and "Zero Dark Thirty" prompts that discussion in an incredibly compelling and (it ought to be said) entertaining way. Just so long as we understand what the discussion is really about.
Daniel Joyaux is a film critic living in Ann Arbor. You can see more of his writing at thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com