Director Kathryn Bigelow has been on the back foot for a couple of months now, taking hits from the left and the right about this film. It’s a film that shows in significant and harrowing detail, how torture is employed by the CIA, and how such techniques set in action a chain of events which led to the eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden. Critics on the left are swinging at it because of how it (apparently) rationalises or glorifies torture. Critics on the right have taken issue with the fact that such shenanigans don’t actually take place (scoff). They call them ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, or EITs, which is pretty messed up even as it stands.
Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to know that my politics is squarely to the left. So I found myself in something of a moral quandary by the end of the film (no spoilers here, but let’s just say that it doesn’t end well for Osama): the way Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal structure the film, pace it and deliver the most remarkable final act in a film I’ve seen in years, I reached a pretty satisfied conclusion. The film opens with a title card (‘September 11, 2001’), and various audio grabs from that day (desperate phone calls, air traffic control, etc). It ends 10 years later with a body bag. As I watched it, and let the finality of it all sink in, I reflected that one thing happened, which angered up the Americans; they took steps they deemed necessary; brought about the outcome they sought.
I don’t like the idea of torture, but Zero Dark Thirty is more ‘matter of fact’ than exploring the notion of torture as some kind of grey area. Like Lincoln and Django Unchained, its themes encompass the idea of the ends justifying the means. It was Spielberg’s own Munich which wrestled with this moral quandary – Golda Meir reflects that ‘Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. Lincoln shows that shadiness and underhanded politics led to the ratification of the 13th amendment. Django Unchained showed the brutal deaths of villainous slave owners en route to securing the freedom of two slaves.
Zero Dark Thirty revealed (to me, at least), that the processes the Americans took (allegedly, blah blah blah) were necessary to bring about the outcomes they sought. The film does not revel in its depiction of torture. The process is not glamorized, and it’s not rationalising anything that the Bush-Cheney administration did – it simply presents an interpretation of it. Presents it in a matter-of-fact manner; it is, for the lack of a better term, objective. It is a work of fiction representing history, as opposed to a documentary. The central character, Maya, bears witness to a number of the tortures, and she reacts accordingly. But I do not, for a second, see this film as being judgmental one way or another about any facet of the decade-long operation.
This is Bigelow’s first film since The Hurt Locker, and while that film was made successful because of how its bomb disposal scenes were the apex of white-knuckle tension, this new film exceeds it by being more focused on the journey of this amalgam character, Maya. As played by Jessica Chastain (brilliant here; forceful, occasionally frail, but steel-eyed and determined throughout) she encompasses the apolitical determination of those in ‘clandestine services’ to get the job done; disturbingly under the umbrella of ‘no matter what’. The final act of the film, where the famed Seal Team 6 goes to Abbottabad, Pakistan to kill Bin Laden, is one of the most remarkably assembled set pieces I have ever seen. Although you know the outcome of this event in recent world history, the sequence is thrilling and tense. It’s brilliantly done.