Zero Dark Thirty: A review

“Effective intelligence — including the effort to find Osama bin Laden — is the result of sustained, collective efforts that spark moments of intuition among a pool of experts and processes, not individual hunches that compel monumental effort.”  Nada Bakos, former CIA analyst

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a tremendously unsettling film, a film I’m still trying to get my head around. It purports to tell the story of how US intelligence discovered where Osama bin Laden was hiding, and it concludes by depicting the subsequent military action that killed him.  It looks authoritative.  Everything about it appears painstakingly researched and recreated–we think, as we leave the theater, that this must have been what really happened. The extensive use of hand-held cameras, the scenes in meetings where the characters use insider lingo so we can’t quite follow what they’re talking about, the design and look of the film, all support a sense of documentary objectivity. We’re aware, of course, that we’re seeing a movie, and that parts of the story must have been compressed to fit a two hour narrative.  But the film presents itself as factually accurate; we’re not meant to question its version of events.

Bigelow, and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, have insisted that the film is based on their own, painstaking research, and that the US military did not cooperate in the making of the film.  The military does lend filmmakers equipment for some of their films, but insists on approving the script before-hand– Bigelow and Boal have said that they would not agree to those terms.

The film has been controversial because of its depiction of torture.  The film shows detainees being water boarded, for example, and shows one torture victim subsequently providing the CIA with intelligence that eventually led to further discoveries leading finally to bin Laden’s location.  Liberals argue that torture is not just morally reprehensible, it’s also ineffective–it’s almost an article of faith on the left that torture has never led to any actionable intel, or any information we wouldn’t have found out anyway. That’s what I’ve believed, and I have read extensively about the war on terror.  I would rather not confront the possibility that torture worked.

At the same time, if torture did actually work, if a detainee did provide intel that eventually led to bin Laden’s death, if Bigelow’s research led her to that uncomfortable conclusion, then she should absolutely have included it in her film.  (One way she does it is by depicting ‘Dan’ (Jason Clarke), the main CIA interrogator that we meet, as an otherwise bright, curious, decent, well-read guy, a real humanist, a good guy with a rotten job.)  This is the kind of film that is meant to make us uncomfortable, to raise questions, to make us doubt previously held certitudes. She should be applauded for refusing to back away from uncomfortable truths.

Bigelow’s approach to filmmaking is consistent with what I call New American Naturalism.  Filmmakers in this school– Kelly Reichardt, Laurie Collyer, Jeff Nichols, Lynn Shelton, Derek Cianfrance, the Duplass brothers–make films with ZDT‘s sense of objectivity, films that simply look at an ugly or uncomfortable reality without mediation or comment. That was the approach Bigelow took in her Oscar winning Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker.  These directors’ films don’t offer solutions or suggest a point of view towards the material their films explore.  They just depict.  I love these films; love them passionately, precisely because they’re disturbing, they’re uncomfortable to watch.  I think Nichols’ Shotgun Stories, and Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Collyer’s Sherrybaby and Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine are tremendously important and powerful films.  And I couldn’t help but note that Mark Duplass had a small role in Zero Dark Thirty.

But it is just a style.  These films are works of fiction, even when based on real-life events or history.  I think Kathryn Bigelow is a marvelous director.  But her film should not be immune to criticism.

And what makes the film so troubling to me is that while it appears authoritative, while it looks like it’s showing us What Really Happened, it’s actually pursuing a very conventional movie narrative.  It’s about The Lonely Outsider who makes enemies and struggles to be listened to because no one wants to hear The Truth. The film follows a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain), and her thirteen year effort to find bin Laden.  She’s single-minded in that pursuit.  She seems to have no personal life, and not many friends.  She’s highly confrontational with her superiors, and can be a bit obnoxious.  Chastain is completely brilliant in the role, (I’m rooting for her to win the Oscar for Best Actress), and the movie follows her as she chases down bin Laden, from data point to data point.  She learns of a courier, then she gets a phone number he might call, then she tracks calls to that number, then she tracks a cell phone he might use and so on.  It’s very compelling and of course beautifully filmed.

And I don’t buy it.  I’ve read too much about the war on terror, I’ve read too much about the way the CIA works.  I don’t find it plausible, except possibly as a movie tracing one thread of many that led to bin Laden. And that’s all before I read this article in Salon.

I do not believe that the CIA would recommend to the President of the United States that our military violate the sovereignty of a ally to murder a foreign national based on conclusions reached by one analyst she based on maybe ten points of data. That’s not how counter-intelligence works.  I think that Bigelow and Boal discovered a real-life analyst, code-named Maya, who did remarkable work.  I don’t question the decision to make a movie about her. (And of course, she’s not the only character–other CIA colleagues are shown).  A single compelling protagonist makes for good drama. I think that depicting the actual hunt for bin Laden would have made for a much longer and infinitely more boring movie than Zero Dark Thirty.

But Bigelow did not tell The Real Story of How We Caught bin Laden.  She has made a taut, exciting, exceptionally well filmed and acted suspense movie, following, for the most part, the conventions of that genre.  It just looks like a gritty naturalistic indie film.  It appears authoritative, but that’s a triumph of style over substance.

And that’s okay.  It’s still a disturbing movie, a thought-provoking movie. I don’t think it tells the Real Story.  More than ever, though, I want to know how much of it is based on solid research.

Did torture lead to intelligence that led, in time, to discovering bin Laden’s location?  What the film suggests is that torture may have disoriented a detainee enough that he was prepared to give up crucial intel when they started treating him nicely.  I would prefer not to believe that that’s true, but if it is true, I want to know that too.

Above all, I want to know about the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound.  That’s something we should be able to know quite a bit about, and I want to believe that Bigelow gets it right.

The Seal team raid is not, to Bigelow’s credit, treated triumphantly.  It’s very tense and superbly filmed–lots of night vision photography and subjective camera angles, but there’s no soaring music, no dramatic confrontation with bin Laden, even.  It’s presented as a precisely planned and executed military op. The Seals are depicted as exceptionally well-trained and highly disciplined men doing an unpleasant job superbly well.  It felt like I was watching the very best exterminators in the world taking on the world’s worst cockroach.

But it also depicts a very tense situation that could have blown up completely, and sort of barely didn’t. According to the movie:

The Pakistani military scrambled helicopters to the site, and our guys just barely got out in time, by a matter of seconds. Imagine the fallout of a helicopter battle between US and Pakistani forces.

Bin Laden’s compound was in a residential neighborhood and the raid woke everyone up, leading to a confrontation between two Americans, a Seal and a CIA operative, supported by a roof-top sniper, and maybe fifty unarmed civilians.  The CIA guy spoke enough Urdu to defuse the situation–imagine the fallout if we’d had to shoot a bunch of civilians.

Two of bin Laden’s men opened fire on American forces, and were killed.  In the firefight, an unarmed female non-combatant was also killed.  There were close to a dozen children in there too.  Imagine if collateral damage had been worse.

Plus, you know, they did get bin Laden, but it was dark in there, and it’s not inconceivable that they could have missed him.  Imagine the blowback if they had. So I want to know how much of that is true.  How close did this come to a complete fiasco?

And also, there’s this.  We violated the sovereignty of a foreign nation, an ally, in order to murder a foreign citizen.  We made no effort to arrest him, nor did we go through any formal extradition process.  We flew in, landed soldiers, and killed four people, and flew out again with bin Laden in a body bag. I don’t mourn the death of Osama bin Laden.  But I do think we need to acknowledge this reality:  We violated international law, and we did it without apology or regret, because we’re the United States of America and we get to do that.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t really celebrate any of that. Instead it ends with a question, and a final image.  It asks “where do we go now?”  And it closes on Jessica Chastain’s tear-streaked face. In tears, because bin Laden’s dead, and what happens next?  Who are we now, thirteen years into the War on Terror?  Where do we go?  How do we define ourselves as a people, in relation to the rest of the world?




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