First, the verdict: Zero Dark Thirty is a technically competent, somewhat interesting, and wildly irresponsible film. Katheryn Bigalow, who directed Point Break and the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, brings her usual gritty, woeful machismo to the chase for Osama bin Laden by a gang of extremely irate office workers and few rednecks with super-guns. While it’s impossible to follow the intricately tangled web of deduction which constitutes most of the plot, you always know what’s going to happen–they’re going to hunt for a while and then kill ObL–so it’s hard to get lost in any important sense. (It’s sort of like Titanic in that way, but without a love story to distract you.) Bigalow’s movies feel like documentaries: she’s more interested in the emotional effects of extraordinary situations on the people in them than she is in climactic battle scenes or affective-dictating music, so there are lots of long shots of inscrutable faces and heavy-handed metaphors (e.g. one of the US torturers keeps monkeys in a cage beside the POW cages; the monkeys are killed just as their leads run dry and he decides to give up the chase). Characters are constantly brooding over some insoluble problem, and will periodically blow up at someone to demonstrate how tightly-wound they are. Indeed, I’d go so far as to argue on the basis of their goals and temperaments that Patrick Swayze’s surfer in Point Break, the bomb guy from The Hurt Locker, and the ObL-obsessed CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty are all basically the same character: Swayze’s addicted to surfing, bomb-guy’s addicted to the adrenaline of bomb-diffusal, and the CIA analyst is addicted to the hunt.
In any event, the big, interesting problem with the film is its rhetorical approach to the torture and killing perpetrated by US military and intelligence in the War on Terror. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand why so many people objected to its depiction of torture: the first third of the film consists of the heroes torturing someone until he gives a name, then kidnapping that guy and torturing him until he surrenders another name. It’s not implied that torture yielded critical information to the CIA; the entire first act is based entirely upon the efficacy of torture (as long as you torture carefully, have a ton of patience, and love America).
But that’s not exactly what got my feathers in a ruffle. If torture worked in the hunt for ObL, then torture worked–I’ve never been married to the idea that torture is always ineffective. What I am married to is the idea that torture has broad moral, legal, political, and especially diplomatic effects, and it is precisely these issues about which the film remains entirely silent. Throughout, Bigalow presents torture and violence as the simple, brutal facts of the world that these characters inhabit. At no point do characters (or anything else) discuss whether kidnapping and torturing suspected terrorists might, for instance, encourage greater violence against the US et al, or be inconsistent with their duty to American ideals, or rot the legitimacy of the US government as a fair or decent entity. The closest the film comes to anything like this is a passing mention of a newly-implemented restriction on “enhanced interrogation.” Instead, characters just squint seriously at each other and argue heatedly over strategy. (The CIA analyst’s strategy? Trusting her gut, mostly.) The one caveat I must add to this criticism is that Bigalow never makes torture or violence conventionally heroic: when the SEALs storm ObL’s compound at the end, they preemptively shoot several people (rather than the more conventional tactic of having the heroes kill a bunch of bad guys in self-defense). Watching SEALs riddle already-dead corpses with extra bullets does nothing to glorify those soldiers. Still, this is part of the rhetoric of Bigalow’s narrative: by showing SEALs killing preemptively and soldiers waterboarding POWs, Bigalow bolsters the movie’s aesthetic of “gritty realism.” She doesn’t do conventional heroes: her protagonists are all anti-heroes, almost as in a noir. Thus, there is no deeper message in which an unheroic portrayal of torture is used as a criticism of torture; that’s just how she handles her material. She would have made pretty much the same film about firefighters or cowboys: any situation where the tough get going. Another way of putting this: Bigalow doesn’t appear to care, as an artist, whether or not torture is moral, only whether it is stylistically effective. That is, “realistic.”
And that’s my problem: this looks realistic, but it isn’t. This film obscures any discussion of the (real) broader social issues tied up in the hunt for ObL and replaces such discussion with a simplistic yet effective narrative of lonesome obsession. It wasn’t Bodhi or Jonny Utah who carried out the War on Terror or the hunt for ObL, which had real victims besides the chattering brown people this film presents “realistically.” Where are their stories?
At the beginning of this essay, I called this film “wildly irresponsible.” It is wildly irresponsible because the past decade has been consumed by foreign wars and domestic corruption perpetuated in no small part by Americans’ appetite for myths of Strong Men (sometimes women) Doing What Men Must Do. This movie is essentially writing the popular history of the hunt for ObL. To create a film about a critical part of the War on Terror in a way that reinforces Strong-Man narratives is juvenile and wrong.
A shorter way of saying all this: Zero Dark Thirty is a film which, by trying to be apolitical in its portrayal of the War on Terror, implicitly endorses it.
According to acclaimed reporter Seymour Hersh, the “true story” on which Zero Dark Thirty is based is bullshit. His anonymous sources say that it was a bribed defection, not torture or spycraft, which led the US to find bin Laden.