This is where we begin.
I first heard these calls in high school. I braced myself across several days and then plunged into their clammy horror. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” transformed into a murmur, stripped of those fiery, passionate images — burning towers, smoke building across the Manhattan skyline — the effect is still disturbing, but as a cry to action we shake our fists halfheartedly. We’re tense and confused without righteous fury to root our feet.
“Zero Dark Thirty” continues to disorient, muddling the ground surrounding the hunt for, and killing, of bin Laden. We know how this story ends. We anticipate the euphoria of seeing his dead body, prone, humiliated, but it’s just a body like all the rest. This is a thrilling film, awe-inspiring, a feat of political and psychological inquiry. It’s toxic to ideologues who expect easy answers: torture is bad; Osama is bad; America is good and bad (but mostly good). The truth? We’re all trapped in the dark, groping, searching for traction.
We stumble forward two years to a base in Pakistan. CIA man Dan, played by Jason Clarke, paces around a detainee tied spread-eagle to the ceiling. Welts pepper his face. A young woman watches them from the corner. This is Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, young, petite, secluded in her discomfort. She hides her feelings. She is our main character.
They torture the man, Ammar — essential to the movie, as portrayed by Reda Kateb with all his blankness — to secure the dates and location of an upcoming terrorist attack. The torture fails. Twenty-two are killed in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and the massacre’s masterminds are no closer to capture. Maya recovers from this failure with a change of tactics, which draws out from Ammar a name: Amu Ahmed. He might be the key to tracking down bin Laden, she figures, and sticks to her guns for eleven years against the scrutiny of weary officials who want something more substantial, “something that leads to a strike,” she’s told sternly. Her resilience pays off, we know, but that initial failure hovers over us. Twenty-two killed. Scramble, screams, loss of control. Couldn’t be stopped.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-journalist Mark Boal approach the material impassively, breaking up the plot into documentary chunks with cold titles (“HUMAN ERROR,” “TRADECRAFT,” “PREDATOR ROOM,” “CIA HEADQUARTERS”) and yet we won’t watch this film impassively. It’s stacked with the thrills generic spy movies clamor for, building tension painfully up to a suicide bombing on a CIA base, then culminating in its climax with the DEVGRU raid on bin Laden’s compound. The event plays out in real time with deft cutting, coursing along on a rhythm of military semaphores and detonations, all viewed in night vision.
These are the seeds of a patriotic movie, but the soil is unfruitful, or rather fruitful in irregular ways. Perhaps it’s Maya, described by critics as “tough as nails,” “vivid as a bloodshot eye,” a “real character” and “no gun-toting macho man.” These may be true, in some ways, but what makes Maya special aside from Chastain giving an incredible performance? She’s not the only woman in the CIA. We meet others, including Jessica, played by Jennifer Ehle as wary of men but trusting in their moral consistency. Her downfall.
She is somewhat of an anomaly – recruited out of high school, largely friend-less, devoted only to finding Bin Laden. She’s self-described as “not that girl that f***s,” which might give some extra pause. Yet in behavior Maya runs the same gamut as her male colleagues: detached, focused, furious, delighted at good fortune. I was struck mostly by her youth. Her voice hasn’t yet shed its teenage avidity. Outside intel rooms, pulled back from the Iraqi deserts, Maya might be any woman, a person you know from school or work.
Most viewers will be boggled at this alien movie landscape. A strong woman just like us? Torture viewed with disinterest? Osama Bin Laden, supervillain of all supervillains, killed – America avenged! – only to be glossed over like a picked scab? Regular discourse doesn’t apply here: the terms have changed. Some will refuse to change with it. Audience members cooed at the sight of monkeys being fed on an Iraqi base, just five hundred feet from detainees, also caged. When we discover the monkeys have been killed off-screen, the “aww”s change tenor. This is tragedy. Terrorists stripped and beaten on a blurry TV: that’s routine.
“Zero Dark Thirty” shook me to the core. It refuses to cater to any political party and as such provokes them all. For those who accuse it of condoning torture by depiction, let me ask: do you expect to see torture visualized in the moral language of your subconscious? I envisioned waterboarding as a violent submersion, all dunks, splash and thrashing. In reality, Dan pours a pitcher of water on Ammar’s face like he’s pouring tea, Ammar’s cries choked off, body pinned down; the water drizzles onto the rag like a quarter-sized puddle, psst-ing serenely. There’s a lesson to learn here. Go find it.