Desert of the Real
by Jeff Reichert

Zero Dark Thirty
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, U.S., Columbia Pictures

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty operates fully within that specific register of realism that has been defined over the last few decades of contemporary cinema. Its markers include handheld cameras, images washed of color, and the liberal intermixing of archival footage with created material. As such, it’s obsessed with achieving journalistic accuracy, which seems to have become the loftiest goal in current cinema. About an hour’s worth of screen time, two years-plus of story time, and several grotesque torture scenes into it, the perceptive viewer might note one of those blink-and-miss-it details that represent another hallmark of realism in film. By this point we’ve already seen low-level al-Qaeda associate Ammar (Reda Kateb) waterboarded, stripped below the waist, walked around on all fours wearing a studded dog collar, and stuffed into small box. These humiliations are carried out by CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) in the presence of his colleague Maya (Jessica Chastain), the film’s nominal protagonist, whom we follow over a decade as she hunts for Osama bin Laden. Now the three, made intimate through these horrifying acts, sit across a table from each other almost congenially. Dan insists Ammar eat from the many bowls placed on the table in front of him and as the man reaches for his first bite, he quickly mouths “Bismillah,” the invocation always spoken by Muslims before a meal. This struck me as the first time I’ve seen this slight but central element of Islamic life represented in a Hollywood film.

The film begins with a solemn title card announcing that what follows will be “based on first hand accounts” before moving into its most ghoulish segment, in which Bigelow plays, over a darkened screen, the recordings of cell phone calls made from the Twin Towers September 11, 2001, as the planes struck. As Maya’s manhunt continues and the casualties from terror attacks around the world mount, Bigelow pulls in footage from the aftermath of the July 2005 London public transport bombings, and the September 2008 attack on the Islamabad Marriott. This footage is skillfully interwoven with Maya’s search so as to minimize audience disruption—we’re not supposed to feel the shift in registers between scripted Zero Dark Thirty material and the images taken from the news (the protagonist herself is depicted as having just missed being killed in the Marriott explosion). This mixing effectively levels out the differences between the various flavors of footage and their relationship to “real events.” It’s one of the ways in which Zero Dark Thirty successfully overlays the collection of suppositions, condensations, and outright fabrications that is Maya’s narrative on top of our own understanding of the decade-long War on Terror. Ammar’s simple “Bismillah,” though presenting little to immediately object to, is just another piece of this clinical strategy.

Zero Dark Thirty’s goal is to provide viewers a detailed explanation of how Maya, herself a composite of several agents, eventually caught up to bin Laden, setting in motion the storied nighttime raid on his Abbottabad compound. The film’s constituent parts are those common to any film of a procedural bent: scene after scene of Maya, Dan and other CIA operatives working leads, scouring records, rewinding video tapes endlessly, slamming desks in frustration, occasionally blowing off steam in a bar. The film is divided into sections by title cards, some of which refer to dates and places, others, like “The Saudi Group” “Tradecraft” and “Human Error,” refer to the contents of the scenes we’re about to witness. These cards provide little actual grounding—with all the abrupt globe-hopping, foreshortened scenes, bits and pieces of off-screen information half-referenced and quickly dropped, and the constant spy jargon tossed around by the agents, we might as well be watching a universe as foreign as Middle Earth. We’re not invited into this world of secrets, we’re just meant to sit idly, impressed by how much of it journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal and Bigelow have uncovered for our benefit.

Neither Bigelow nor writer Boal, in interviews, ever acknowledge that the realism they traffic in on the way to building their new master narrative about the War on Terror is actually a studious construction. Though it may focus on one of the central global narratives of the past decade and be sourced to the gills, Zero Dark Thirty is still made of the same stuff that all movies, no matter how “realistic” are made of; that this artifice needs to be noted every time a film in this vein rolls around remains a central failure of our culture’s relationship to the moving image (the seductiveness of verisimilitude suggests some of the reasons for film’s ability to captivate and convince on a larger scale than other arts). Unlike the opening of Lincoln, the other historical procedural currently dominating year-end movie screens, in which a highly theatrical overture immediately invokes and questions the limits of representation, letting us know that what we’re about to see is a creative imagining of the passage of the 13th Amendment, Zero Dark Thirty’s “first hand accounts” title card is the film’s guiding principle. This obsession with films getting as close to something as possible doesn’t often lead to great art. When Olivier Assayas, a cannier filmmaker than Bigelow, mounted Carlos, a similarly scaled production dealing with global terrorism, his opening card noted the necessary fictionalization of events. This offered him the wiggle room to imagine the film’s best segments, those involving late-period Carlos, paunchy and dissolute, juggling his family and fading career as a global terrorist. Bigelow and Boal stick to their personality-free “just the facts” approach as obsessively as their heroine sticks to her dogged pursuit of bin Laden, but what happens to a film like Zero Dark Thirty when the filmmakers’ “facts” are hotly disputed, especially by people who would be in a far better position to know?

At this point, it’s worth mentioning the teapot tempest that erupted over political columnist Glenn Greenwald’s writings on Zero Dark Thirty just prior to its release. Greenwald, based on accounts he’d read before actually seeing the film, launched a jeremiad against Bigelow’s framing of torture as a tool that was central to the capture of bin Laden. Several senators from both parties joined the chorus of disapproval, as has the current director of the CIA. Film critics, upset at Greenwald’s venturing into their turf, and oddly overprotective of the Bigelow brand, decided to support Zero Dark Thirty, almost en masse, though most of the ripostes never really considered the issue at the core of Greenwald’s argument, focusing instead on his temerity to raise a reasonable objection prior to seeing the film. After Greenwald saw Zero Dark Thirty, he only doubled down on his criticisms. I disagree with him in some of his word choices: “glorify,” “hagiography,” and “propaganda” miss the mark somewhat. Zero Dark Thirty most certainly does not “glorify” torture. It views the process of interrogation as one fraught with complex relational dynamics, the interrogators often as little interested in exercising force as the detainees are in receiving it, and where carrots and sticks get doled out in equal measure. That Bigelow and Boal have strived to avoid simplifying their depiction of this process is admirable. Even so, the film opens on a scene of torture, then follows it up quickly with another. In that later genial lunch scene, a key piece of information that reinvigorates Maya’s search (the alias of a man she believes to be bin Laden’s personal courier) is gleaned from Ammar after a period of sleep deprivation. The inference that “enhanced interrogation” led to valuable information coupled with the film’s “this-then-this” procedural structure, in which one event or clue discovered leads to the next, makes the case that American-sanctioned torture led to the death of bin Laden, and most viewers will leave the highly “realistic” Zero Dark Thirty confident in that knowledge.

What’s perhaps worse and more damning is a later scene where, for little apparent narrative reason, the small group working the bin Laden case sits around a conference room table while an NBC interview with a recently elected Barack Obama plays in the background. In that interview, Obama definitively states his opposition to torture; in the foreground of the frame, Maya’s hardened colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) shakes her head as if to suggest the president’s ignorance—she’s been in the field, he hasn’t. If Bigelow and Boal want to insist they haven’t made a movie that validates torture morally, that’s fine. But to label it apolitical, as they have repeatedly done, either suggests willful mendacity or ignorance. Their film quite clearly stakes out a position on one of the more controversial political questions of the last decade in American politics, and soon it will be making its case several times a day on thousands of screens around the country. Greenwald’s writings on the film may hyperventilate, but when one considers the scale of the historical rewrite we’re about to witness, his pitched tenor is more forgivable. Maybe “propaganda” isn’t so far off the mark after all.

If our critical culture handled films of this ilk with something other than kid gloves, we might not have to continually address these same, tired questions. Why is it so hard to engage the reader to a more credulous relationship with the moving image? The memory of the rapturous reception which greeted Paul Greengrass’s atrocious United 93 hangs over Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow’s film, to its credit is far less immediately risible). As with that earlier film, we’re forced to ask: who are these movies for? What are they trying to accomplish? And why is it so hard to muster up real criticism about them when they arrive? To wit, here’s David Edelstein in New York magazine:

This is a phenomenal piece of action filmmaking—and an even better piece of nonaction filmmaking. It also borders on the politically and morally reprehensible. By showing these excellent results—and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other “black sites”—it makes a case for the efficacy of torture. How to reconcile these two feelings? The debate begins December 19.

In Edelstein’s case, this process of reconciliation involved naming Zero Dark Thirty the best film of the year and handing “the debate,” one clearly not engendered by a film of so authoritative a bent, off to his readers. It’s become all too commonplace for critics to float above the fray, and praise works they find aesthetically valuable and politically questionable (a replaying of the old Leni Riefenstahl debate again), but is this l’art pour l’art stance any way to watch movies? Isn’t this just abdicating a crucial part of the critical act? Wouldn’t we rather our film writers be morally engaged viewers rather than diffident aesthetes? The morally engaged viewer doesn’t necessarily look to the film in question for simple affirmation of his or her viewpoints and reject opposing ideas out of hand. Rather, the moral viewer looks to cinema to encounter a host of perspectives, and can find pleasure in a variety of them so long as the art itself is well reasoned and internally sound. Especially in light of how the filmmakers have spoken about their work, the problem with Zero Dark Thirty becomes less that it ends up making a forceful case for the efficacy of torturing human beings for national security—it’s that one can easily walk away from the film doubting whether Bigelow and Boal have even realized that this is what they’ve done.

The film’s finale suggests Bigelow and Boal might have had something deeper on their minds, and how tripped up that goal became along the way. The last shot, an extended close-up of an exhausted Maya, flying alone to who-knows-where as tears (of relief? of joy? of sadness?) trail down her cheeks, invites us to imagine the tight character study that Zero Dark Thirty could have been. Chastain doesn’t fully convince of the essential toughness she’s constantly described by the men around her as possessing; her male superiors often refer to her as “the girl,” and the actress, seeming uncomfortable throughout, doesn’t ever put the lie to their sexism. She’s not helped by the film’s dramaturgy. Though the rolling tympani and moaning brass of Alexandre Desplat’s score, far from the bombast usually paired with action pictures, hearkens back to any number of tawdry B-noirs of the fifties about obsessives in pursuit of impossible objects (there’s a hint of Vertigo swirling in this space as well—imagine a Zero Dark Thirty in which Maya grapples with sadness and the emptiness left after achieving her goals, and then tries to replicate her singular obsession), but there’s just so much plot to wade through and characters and storylines half introduced that Chastain’s never given the opportunity to carve out a character. The filmmakers’ allegiance to the real thus wins out again over the wondrous possibilities of artifice. For all the (often unthinking) politically questionable choices Bigelow and Boal make, their biggest failures might well be simple questions of casting and scripting.

As entertainment, Zero Dark Thirty zips right along—I’d barely even felt time passing until Navy Seal Team 6 began suiting up for its climactic nighttime raid. Shouldn’t art that so bowdlerizes its real-life subject matter in order to create a pleasurable experience be called out for doing so? The actual quest for bin Laden surely rested more on gradations of tedium as opposed to one manufactured mini-climax after another—why don’t we desire that a “realistic” representation of that hunt fall far closer to that truth? Zero Dark Thirty is just another incredibly well-fashioned product of the same morbid culture that considers weaponry sexy and art featuring evisceration and tales of war fascinating—which is to say, pretty much all of Western culture ever. But though there may be a certain degree of bloodlust running in our DNA, we can aspire to better. There is more rueful violence in Zero Dark Thirty than one would expect of an essentially shallow contraption—the Seal team members especially, evince a tenable remorsefulness as they storm bin Laden’s compound and the body count, including unarmed women and children, rises. But featuring a passing regard for consequences in your script isn’t the same as producing a comment on violence or our collective national obsession with hunting and killing one man. It’s the same bait-and-switch Bigelow achieved with The Hurt Locker: a well-executed, easily disposable action film that signifies little beyond its of-the-moment relevance.