I have been eagerly awaiting a chance to see Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty for several months. I didn’t get a chance to see it at the theater, and so didn’t feel qualified to comment on the ever-evolving controversies on the film. Today I was finally able to screen it at home.
Detractors of the movie almost universally ignore any discussion of acting, directing, cinematography, or screenwriting (all stellar by the way) and fixate solely on the depiction of torture. During the first half of the film CIA operative Maya watches Arab suspects being waterboarded, beaten, dragged with dog collars, stuffed in boxes, starved, sleep deprived, and subjected to bursts of the horror that is contemporary heavy metal. The goal is to find the whereabouts of one Abu Ahmed, supposedly bin Laden’s most trusted courier.
During these scenes Maya flinches and is visibly disturbed by the proceedings, but aside from that no commentary is made one way or the other. Bigelow commendably refuses to take a side on the torture debate: these things happened and that is all. Anyone who claims that ZD30 condones torture either didn’t watch the film or is blinded by obnoxious pacifism of the infantile variety.
You know the rest of the story. The CIA find the courier living in a fortified compound in Pakistan where a mysterious male never ventures outdoors. Seal Team Six goes in under cover of darkness and shoot the world’s most dangerous man in the face (plus a few innocent bystanders). The climactic scene sizzles dramatically even though you know what’s coming: the true mark of a great storyteller.
In the third act Maya unzips the body-bag and confirms the identity of the man on the third floor, then charters a one woman flight out of Pakistan, mission accomplished. The pilot tells her she must be important to get her own plane and asks where she wants to go. Maya cannot fathom an answer, and cries as the screen fades to black. The object of her obsession has passed, and she does not know where to go from there.
The decade that passed between September 11, 2001 and May 1, 2011 was a traumatic one for western civilization and Bigelow never lets us forget it; every shot is suffused with an undeniable tension. These things happened, this is the world we’re living in today.
Aside from the breathless liberals decrying an imagined medieval political agenda, the other criticism has been on the lack of emotional depth in any of the film’s characters. These detractors miss the point, perhaps even moreso than the bleeding hearts. Maya is narrow, shallow, ruthless, cold and one-dimensional. Revenge is her entire life. She’s the perfect archetype for post 9/11 America: scarred, paranoid, haunted and hollow.
Perhaps the most obnoxious thing a reader or viewer can say about a story is that they did not like the main character, or could not identify with anybody. These people obviously have not met a lot of people. People are not brave, selfless, loving or pure of heart. People are venal, vapid, selfish and above all cruel. Some are more cruel than others, some so cruel that they don’t get a trial, and if your delicate fucking sensibilities can’t handle that go back to the pre-K room and pick up your legos.
The pacifists I’ve known have never known trauma; never experienced fearing for their lives or physical safety. In an ideal world we never would have overthrown the Shah, never helped the Jihadists toss out the Soviets, never stationed troops in the kingdom, never went to Baghdad. Maybe we could have avoided 9/11 in New York, 3/11 in Madrid, 7/7 in London. We did not. The war will go on for one hundred years.
Zero Dark Thirty should serve if nothing else as an unsettling reminder of the world we now live in.
These things happened. There is no going back.