A day after the Oscar nominations, Zero Dark Thirty has opened wide. Having just seen it, I can say unequivocally that Kathryn Bigelow deserved a Best Director nomination, and all other nominations are wholly justified. This is a riveting film, deserving all the praise it’s been receiving.
At the open, a title card tells us the movie is based on first-hand accounts, but like any ultimately fictional work, I took that with a grain of salt (my thoughts on the debate swirling around it will come at the end). With no images attached, we then hear the 911 recordings from the World Trade Center. It’s a visceral, emotional reminder of that horrific event, almost more than replaying the visuals we’ve become more accustomed to. From there we move to a CIA black site, and an interrogator threatening a prisoner, before moving on to torturing him. Watching is Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is made visibly uncomfortable by the treatment she’s watching but determined to see the interrogation of this prisoner through. Maya is dogged in her investigation, and even at this early stage we can see how it’s consuming her.
Jessica Chastain is utterly magnetic as Maya, commanding your attention. She’s almost hollowing herself out in her search for bin Laden. We get no look at her life outside of this work because this is her life, and it’s all consuming. Chastain’s performance is carefully layered, so in moments where she’s having a drink with a friend you can see how any casual air is a thin crust over a deep sea. If she were allowed and physically able to, there’s no doubt she wouldn’t stop to sleep or eat, much less socialize. She also has no use for the politics expected to navigate CIA headquarters or Washington. She displays the same competence and determination Ben Affleck’s Argo character embodies, and it’s great seeing a female character like this, who isn’t a caricature.
Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s script also keep the entire film at the highest possible tension. Scenes like the wait for an approaching car or trying to locate a cell phone signal become nail biting. The build to the discovery of the compound is masterful, and the night raid on the Abbotabad compound is so deftly filmed that portion alone should prove she deserves recognition for her skill as a director.
Regarding the controversy around the film’s depiction of torture and it’s role in finding bin Laden, I actually read more than I intended to about the controversy before seeing Zero Dark Thirty. Ultimately, this is a movie, and like any other fiction based on real events, the fine details have been sanded off to leave the hard center of the story. this is crafted as a movie about the hunt for bin Laden, not about “enhanced interrogation” or torture. While the movie does show quite clearly that the CIA tortured prisoners, I didn’t see it as a movie about torture. The larger story Bigelow and Boal are trying to tell is more about the determined hunt for a terrorist and killer. The scenes of torture are played early on and after the 9/11 audio to tie those actions more to a desire for revenge and wrath than any proof of effectiveness. And the subsequent legwork done by Maya and the other agents is ultimately what produces results. By including scenes of torture, they’re putting a dark and shameful series of actions on clear display, the later investigative scenes carry beneath them the question of whether torture was even necessary. This is subtly implied as, again, the movie wasn’t crafted to be about torture, but an important point.
What is so insidious about having treated prisoners this way, is that there is no way to look at this period in history without discussing torture. To have left torture out of the story would have been the same kind of whitewashing we do when World War II stories leave out internment camps. It’s bold of the film makers to recognize this and address it head on rather than brush over it. Some viewers have come away with the impression the movie justifies torture, Others (like me) didn’t, and there’s value in the way it forces us to discuss our treatment of prisoners. Zero Dark Thirty is an intense viewing experience, but one well worth having.