History is about to repeat itself, and for the first time in a long time, the American people don’t have anything to worry about. Three years ago, a vast majority of film aficionados were adamantly certain that James Cameron’s Avatar was going to win Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, despite the film’s heavy reliance on special effects, an embarrassingly in-your-face advertising campaign, and a general lack of artistic originality. Then voters had a chance to see The Hurt Locker—far and away the best film of 2009—and James Cameron was forced to watch his ex-wife take home the two most prominent awards of the night. This year, James Cameron is not a contender, but neither was Kathryn Bigelow—until Zero Dark Thirty started screening. Bigelow captures the CIA’s post-9/11 pursuit of Osama bin Laden with a level of apparent accuracy hardly seen outside of Steven Spielberg’s period pieces—complete with a reenactment of the Seal Team Six raid in Abbottabad that can only be compared to Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach open.
The audio from 9/11 provides an appropriately sober opening, and the audience’s first encounter with the two CIA agents—Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) responsible for the majority of Zero Dark Thirty’s plot is as informative as possible without drifting into on-the-nose territory. It is in the subtleties of Dan and Maya’s emotions—aggression, conflict, certainty, regret—that a mile-wide line is drawn in the sand, separating ZDT from every other film and television show claiming to present a realistic picture of America’s national security (see Homeland). Chastain and Clarke remove all available hyperbole from their characters, making it increasingly difficult not to snicker when presented with over-the-top protagonists like Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson or Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. Seven minutes in, the heat gets turned up when Dan asks Maya for a pitcher of water and forces viewers to witness the interrogation techniques US interrogators used—and still use—to extract information from high-value targets. Those who seek to accuse Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow of unequivocally appeasing enhanced interrogation techniques need only keep watching for another fifteen minutes, at which time they are treated to the other side of the torture coin—the side where detainees divulge useless or incorrect information just to make the pain stop. Ineffective as it may be at times, though, there’s no sense in denying—on film or in the historical record—the critical role torture played in the hunt for bin Laden. Additionally, the success of Dan and Maya’s violent back-and-forth with detained al-Qaeda operatives seems to rely as much on basic deception as it does enhanced interrogation techniques. If taken as a statement about the use of torture in pursuit of vital intelligence, the film doesn’t quite deliver the partisan punch many shortsighted individuals have insisted it does. There is no implication that “torture worked” any more than there is a suggestion that bin Laden could have only been caught by a woman.
The film’s only weak point is a lack of explanation regarding how much time each step of the hunt took. Dan and Maya help familiarize us with the tone and techniques involved with information extraction, but the audience receives only hints about the amount of time it takes to “break” a detainee. Any audience member not prepared to act as a diligent student of modern history is sure to have difficulty following the film’s plot, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—and the same can certainly be said about Boal and Bigelow’s military masterpiece, The Hurt Locker. Had they simplified the story—or watered down its less overtly admirable aspects—to increase its universal appeal, it would have been regarded as a terrible injustice not just by realists, but by everyone with an emotional attachment to the subject matter.
Even the factual inaccuracies (most prominently, Seal Team Six wearing camouflage uniforms with American flags on them) serve only to prevent the audience from misinterpreting critical bits of information. In truth, the men who stormed bin Laden’s compound would hardly be distinguishable from mercenaries—all black uniforms with no markings. It seems likely that the filmmakers’ choice to fudge this detail was an effort to clarify the point that bin Laden was killed by American servicemen, not private contractors or hired guns.
Long story short—just about every complaint about Zero Dark Thirty is utter partisan nonsense. Boal and Bigelow glorify torture no more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln glorifies political corruption—the President’s most powerful weapon in guaranteeing passage of the 13th Amendment. The presentation of aIn a few months, Kathryn Bigelow will most likely have two more Oscar statuettes on her mantle, Mark Boal will have his second, and Jessica Chastain will have her first (should the tenets of civil service prevail, so will Jason Clarke).