Early in the film Zero Dark Thirty, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) watches the brutal interrogation of a man who may have information about al-Qaeda and the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. As the interrogation proceeds, you can see Maya’s discomfort at the process, her awareness of how the man is suffering, and how much more he may suffer. (One refrain used by an interrogator is, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.”)
Finally, the man turns to Maya, seeking her help or comfort. The discomfort disappears from her eyes. So does any hint of compassion. In this battle between good and evil, however it is waged, she knows who is good and who is not.
Does that mean that Zero Dark Thirty is justifying torture, as some critics of the movie have claimed? No. Its view of the pursuit — and its research has been publicly questioned by some — Zero Dark Thirty sees torture as one of the elements used in the pursuit of bin Laden. But it also shows how basic intelligence-gathering was key to that process. As director Kathryn Bigelow said recently, “Depiction is not endorsement.” But depiction can provide an understanding of what an act is; the film is unflinching in its portrayal of interrogations. And Zero Dark Thirty looks closely at how such acts come to be committed.
From Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, makers of the equally strong The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty establishes repeatedly the rationale for the extremes in the war on terrorism, It begins, after all, with a dark screen and the playing of audio from 9/11. And as it follows the decade-long attempt to get bin Laden, the intelligence-gathering is interrupted repeatedly by other acts of terrorism around the world, acts that take innocent lives, and show no more compassion than Maya has in that interrogation room,
Still, rationalizing something is not the same as justifying it. Plenty of awful acts, which seem unjustifiable, were rationalized by their doers. Terrorists routinely rationalize their deeds. Even Maya, as stern as she appears early in the movie, becomes even more so as the body count rises, focusing all her energy not only on finding bin Laden, but also making sure he ends up dead, haranguing her superiors when not enough is done, speaking up for the attack on bin Laden’s compound in the face of the uncertainty of her superiors. Her quest is heroic, but her style, as the movie makes clear, is that of a gigantic pain in the neck. And as the movie ends and bin Laden is dead, the movie leaves us wondering what she will do next, what life she will have now that her overpowering quest is complete.
Unlike SEAL Team Six, the recent TV movie about the hunt for bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty is less about action than plot and character. Maya is not the only one to feel the burden of her job. An interrogator, played ably by Jason Clarke, does what he believes is necessary but shows increasing wear from it. Various government functionaries express their frustration as year after year resources are expended, billions are spent, and the terrorists keep killing. A piece of information here, a failure there — fully two-thirds of the movie are spent on the search for bin Laden before the SEALs even come onscreen.
When they do, and when they go on their mission, the tension that has filled the earlier parts of the film takes a new form, as the military men work their way through the bin Laden compound, intent on hitting their target while either a threat or a child could be down any narrow hallway, behind any door. We know how this will end, but the presentation itself remains gripping.
After all, at this point the audience is ready for anything; there have been too many scenes of unanticipated brutality to not fear another terrible moment looms.
But at the end, the film comes back to Maya’s face. It is not the same as it was when the film began, at a point years earlier in the pursuit. Chastain has been piling up the great performances, and you can see another one here. An Oscar nomination today is widely expected, and the film should pick up several. It is, after all, an achievement, not only in its storytelling, but also in its ideas — the way, like The Hurt Locker, it gnaws on you long after you have walked out of the theater.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio,com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.