The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Dancer in the Dark
Published on January 15, 2013

In the grim opening moments of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s highly anticipated and controversial follow-up to The Hurt Locker, recordings of distress calls and screams amid the harrowing attacks of September 11 echo over a black, blank screen. A ten-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden plays out over the next two hours. It’s an inspired but odd choice to open the film, because it’s arguably Bigelow’s most emotionally manipulative scene in a film that prides itself on its strictly journalistic, procedural approach to storytelling. Critics have praised Zero Dark Thirty, as they did The Hurt Locker, for its stark, straightforward narrative style. Lately, however, the film has become a lightning rod for its depiction of post-9/11 CIA practices, including torture. Months before Bigelow and screenwriter/co-producer Mark Boal drew fire for their questionable access to classified White House documents about the details of the infamous Abbottabad raid. Well before anyone had seen the film, Zero Dark Thirty was already the most controversial film of the year. 

The film marks a notable shift in the post-9/11 cultural zeitgeist, away from the jingoism of many early 9/11 dramas (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me are two glaring examples), toward a more inquisitive approach. Why, after more than 10 years, is our society is still fixated on putting a face to, and eliminating, The Enemy?

The second scene is almost as jarring: Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer newly reassigned to work in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, arrives at a black ops site to assist Dan (Jason Clarke) in the ongoing interrogation of an al-Qaeda detainee. Maya flinches as Dan and his assistants proceed to psychologically and physically torture the man through waterboarding, sexual humiliation, cruel mind games, sensory deprivation, and more. In a later scene, Maya takes part in another torture of the same man and unflinchingly aides the interrogation. Although the scenes of torture are brief, they’ve come to be the chief point of interest and debate out of Zero Dark Thirty’s 157-minute run time. The first prominent example of backlash came after the initial wave of effusive praise from critics. Glen Greenwald (who hadn’t seen the film) argued that “the film glorifies torture by claiming, falsely, that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding bin Laden.” Greenwald’s piece opened up the floodgates for political columnists all over to attack Bigelow and Boal for the film’s depictions of torture. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni attacked the film as pro-torture, declaring that “Dick Cheney will love the new movie Zero Dark Thirty”; while Mother Jones’s Adam Serwer similarly argued that because Bigelow and Boal muddle some of the torture facts, the film amounts to “rehabilitating torture.”  

But the best analysis comes from Spencer Ackerman at Wired, who wrote that Zero Dark Thirty does not praise or condone the use of torture as an effective technique for obtaining vital information, but rather “presents a graphic depiction of what declassified CIA documents indicate the torture program really was.” Ackerman recognizes that Bigelow’s film succeeds in capturing the national mood in the years immediately following 9/11. The torture scenes are ugly, repellent, and brutal, but their inclusion heightens the inherent moral ambiguity that is the central focus of the film. Whether or not the torture tactics were effective is irrelevant; either way, it happened and ought to be documented.

In an interview, Boal said, “Our agenda isn’t a partisan agenda—it’s an agenda of trying to look behind the scenes at what went down.” Indeed, Zero Dark Thirty may be the first film to tackle this subject in such a balanced, non-partisan manner. The film is the culmination of years of research and intrepid journalism by Bigelow and Boal (with whom Bigelow also collaborated on The Hurt Locker). They originally planned a film about the December 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, at the mountain cave complex where Osama bin Laden was rumored to be hiding. But just as they were to begin shooting in May of 2011, news broke that bin Laden had been killed in a raid of his Abbottabad compound, and it was back to the drawing board. Bigelow and Boal conducted many interviews with government and CIA officials, and were granted access to sensitive documents. At the heart of their research and writing, they developed the character of Maya—the hard-nosed, dogged CIA agent who led the search for and eventually found bin Laden’s compound. Her determination seems aggressive, fanatical, unnerving. Though the Maya character is inspired by a real-life CIA agent, she is also a symbol of the American fixation on the war on terror and its often faceless combatants. (The film’s television counterpart is Showtime’s hit, Homeland, which also explores the American obsession with identifying and eliminating a target in the War on Terror. Claire Danes plays the relentless CIA officer Carrie Mathison, a similar though more cartoonish character to Chastain’s Maya.) As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn notes, Maya’s “[persistence] involves an aspect of religious conviction that puts a human face on the confidential processes driving modern warfare.”

Ultimately, what Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland do best is capture a rather rare moment of abeyance in counter-terrorism. We’ve eliminated the enemy, but now what? Fewer troops are stationed in Iraq, and more will leave Afghanistan in 2014. Who are we fighting exactly, and where? The second season finale of Homeland finds one great enemy defeated, but another swiftly takes his place, and Carrie quietly prepares to face the next threat. Zero Dark Thirty’s coda is more ambiguous: After organizing the raid that executed Osama bin Laden, Maya climbs aboard an empty cargo plane to head back home. Alone, she straps in and becomes emotional as she reflects upon what she just pulled off. Some may see the moment as mawkish, while others see a critique of senseless nationalism. Bigelow refuses to offer any definitive answers. We’re still at war, but we don’t have bin Laden’s face to glue to the dartboard anymore. What now?

Matt Cohen is a film critic, freelance writer and journalist based in Washington, DC.