It was in the way a few audience members clapped as Osama bin Laden is shot to death, and how more applauded immediately after the final cut to black. I just can’t wrap my head around why someone would feel such a celebratory impulse immediately after viewing Zero Dark Thirty, a film rooted deeply in the middle eastern conflict, whose focus is not the gratification one might feel about the idea of eradicating the most well-known terrorist of the modern era. Rather, it’s a film built on the foundation of certainty–one woman’s, in particular–that ends in an ominous haze of uncertainty. Uncertainty of our future, of our security, of our position as a noble force in the fight to defend our country. For those reasons, it makes the jeers, hoots, and applause (an indication of acceptance) from the audience which surrounded me all the more disturbing. For, you see, Zero Dark Thirty is not a reaffirmation of America in white, Middle East in black; it fiercely calls into question American morals just as often as it castigates those we fight against. Killing Osama bin Laden was a small battle won in a much larger war, and certainly isn’t presented as an end-all, be-all point of closure within the film. Zero Dark Thirty is, in direct conflict with what so many Americans want it to be, a most anti-“America, Fuck Yeah” film.
Zero Dark Thirty is based on “true accounts” from those directly (and some, perhaps more indirectly) involved with the killing of Osama bin Laden. It is not a “true” story as much as it is a true interpretation of events which most likely (but have not been proven) led to the extermination of one of the most hated men in the world. It’s true; Bigelow and Mark Boal (also her collaborator on 2010’s The Hurt Locker), spend a glaring amount of time focused on Americans using torture as a means to elicit information from captured Al-Qaeda members–as well as the boldfaced lies purportedly projected to the public regarding such tactics. It’s difficult to accept the events of Zero Dark Thirty as the truth, both morally and because the film is technically a work of fiction. Protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain, giving the best acting performance of 2012) is a pseudo mash-up character birthed from various reports of individuals involved in the real hunt for Osama bin Laden, as are the events which lead to the payoff. It’s also, therefore, much easier to see the controversial scenes of torture as something beyond a simple endorsement, the same as Steven Spielberg’s reproduction of WWII-era death camps isn’t an endorsement of anti-Semitism. Spielberg wasn’t present for the Holocaust, and Bigelow wasn’t present during interrogations of captured Al-Qaeda members. That doesn’t, however, trivialize her right as an artist to include such scenes meant for greater effect.
If you’re looking to a film for truth, you’re simply misguided. As it is, it’s colossally difficult to reproduce the truth in a film like Zero Dark Thirty (or any film, for that matter) in the first place, as the vastness of its scope spans multiple countries, intelligence operations, and surveillance missions wrapped within a messy little ten-year timeframe. Thankfully Bigelow and Boal aren’t overwhelmed, able to pick and choose from their resources with what rings only as ease, crafting a remarkably effective collection of fictitious staging with real-world implications. As the film begins, we’re reminded of one of the defining events which set the entire mess in motion. An assemblage of audio from panicked phone calls placed at the World Trade Center on September 11th plays over a black screen at the beginning of Zero Dark Thirty, reminding us not only of the aura of facelessness which plagued that day (attackers, amassed victims, etc.) but also of the fear, a fear and uncertainty that can be heard in the voices of the callers that endures to this day. Our security is not guaranteed, even with the death of Osama bin Laden.
The actions leading up to Osama bin Laden’s death unfold through the eyes of Maya, who acts as a sort of conduit between the fiction of the film and the reality we endure in a world where the death of Osama bin Laden is more than just a narrative climax. She’s in constant conflict with herself, embodying a raging war of preserved morality versus getting results. She’s good at what she does, however, and the fact that she’s a woman in a male-dominated field doesn’t exactly help her showcase it. Her persistence and certainty is marginalized by the male characters in the film, who often mistake her youth for inexperience, her beauty as a distraction. But, as Maya tells a fellow officer who wishes to set her up with another agent, she’s “not that girl who fucks,” and isn’t one to take the influence of others (whether questioning her experience, her accuracy, or her sex life), even in a situation with all odds against her, to mean more than her certainty.
When her efforts lead her to an Abottabad compound where she believes Osama bin Laden to be hiding, Maya must endure a round-table of men who assess the payoff of her ten-year workload with a maximum “soft 60%” chance of yielding results. “It’s 100%. Ok, 95%, because I know certainty freaks you guys out. But it’s 100,” she butts in. Whether it’s sheer confidence or a diluted willingness to accept the best-looking outcome after ten years of tireless work isn’t necessarilly answered in the subsequent affirmation of her speculation. She was right, but the most powerful moment of the film comes at its conclusion as she’s being flown out of Pakistan. “Where do you want to go?” the pilot asks her as we cut to a close-up of her face, strained from sleepless nights and a decade of near thankless slaving. She remains silent, a few tears streaming down her cheeks as the film cuts to black, Maya never giving an answer. The power of these moments is colossal, and it’s here the film achieves its most profound effect. The world knows the gist of Osama bin Laden’s death. It matters that he’s dead, but the way he died is not entirely clear. Sure, it can be reduced to a bullet. But the process leading up to that bullet isn’t mapped out for us. We’ve seen one artist’s interpretation within Zero Dark Thirty, one which does not celebrate the would-be climax as a moment of pure ecstasy. This is not a film of triumph, but of fear and uncertainty; it’s an ugly pre, during, and post of the most notorious manhunt in history. The question the pilot asks Maya is one she can’t answer, for she knows firsthand that it is unanswerable. She’s seen ugliness on both sides. Torture from Americans, suicide bombings from members of Al-Qaeda. A neverending conflict of ruthless vigilance and moral duty, each defined differently by the sides who wield them. Yet, what yields results? Torture doesn’t lead to much, and the only thing the death of Osama bin Laden proves–at least in the world of Zero Dark Thirty–is that steady enduring unrest doesn’t have a solution solvable by putting a bullet into human flesh. So, then, where you “want” to go becomes an issue, as there is no foreseeable place to go. The next target gives us no time for celebration.
Zero Dark Thirty is most powerful when it is treated not as factual representation, but as a film, from which gleaning versus accepting should be your focus. It is, however, a film which seeks to insert itself into our reality, forcing us to question the parameters around us, and the morality of those in power. Immediately following one of the film’s many gruesome scenes of torture, we see a reassuring interview playing onscreen behind a few characters as he (within the diegetic realm of the film, mind you) lies about the country’s use of such deplorable tactics. There’s no proof that this is fact. Zero Dark Thirty might be fiction, but one with powerful reflective qualities. A mirror rooted in fiction, if you will. Do we gain greater meaning from the torture scenes? From seeing our President trying to cover up amoral actions performed for the preservation of the good of the nation? Are politicians complaining about the film’s depiction of torture because we’re uncomfortable that all of this might be true? The uncertainty is real whether in fiction or our reality, and forcing us to accept and confront the absence of closure following Osama bin Laden’s death is where the true terror of Zero Dark Thirty lies; It places us at war with ourselves.
Top 10 Films of 2012:
Note: The only film I haven’t seen that will most likely make an impact on this list is Amour, which I’ll be seeing on February 15th.
1 – Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
2 – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
3 – The Master
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
4 – Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by: David O. Russell
5 – Celeste and Jesse Forever
Directed by: Lee Toland Krieger
6 – Holy Motors
Directed by: Leos Carax
7 – Seven Psychopaths
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
8 – Life of Pi
Directed by: Ang Lee
9 – Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
10 – The Impossible
Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
And this, essentially, functions as my apology for hating on Kathryn Bigelow throughout the entire 2009-10 awards season. I still don’t like The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty is a triumph of contemporary cinema.