The Deceptive Emptiness of “ZERO DARK THIRTY” [Film Review]_Featured_, Conscious Living Saturday, December 29th, 2012
By Richard Brody | The New Yorker
If I had a watch, I wouldn’t have looked at it once during the screening of “Zero Dark Thirty” that I attended several weeks ago. When the lights came on and I discovered that I had been in my seat for two and a half hours, the movie’s length came as a surprise. The film is a cinematic page-turner, constructed on a simple architecture: the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, mainly from the perspective of a C.I.A. agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), whose meticulous and obstinate investigation culminates in the military raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that resulted in his death. It’s constructed like a roller-coaster ride, with its thrills and scares, which the viewer knows will result in success—at least, success as defined by those who are involved in the mission.
But there’s something perverse about approaching “Zero Dark Thirty” as exciting action entertainment: it’s based on real events and real people, and, in surprisingly many ways, its subject is at the very core of contemporary American politics: the use of force by the United States government—which, in the film, is headed by the torture of prisoners suspected of association with Al Qaeda, and continues to the military action that resulted in bin Laden’s death. The C.I.A., and, in particular, Maya, are hard at work to uncover information regarding where bin Laden can be found, and are doing so on the assumption that, when he’s found, the U.S. military will capture or kill him. As the movie proceeds and Maya pieces together bits of data that suggest bin Laden’s presence at the Abbottabad compound, she and her colleagues are charged with evaluating the evidence for its reliability, so that the President can make a reasonable judgment as to whether to unleash the assault.
The movie is exciting to watch—the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, organize the action to maximize suspense, subjecting Maya to a range of dangers and, at the point when she thinks that she has circumstantially located bin Laden, starting the equivalent of a ticking clock that stokes the thrills even more. Though viewers know that the Navy SEAL raid on the Abbottabad compound was successful—meaning that bin Laden was killed and the soldiers got out safe and sound—the staging of it, filled with twists, turns, pitfalls, near-misses, is done with heart-pounding energy, alternating between views of the soldiers and their own point of view, through their infrared night-vision goggles.
Despite the filmmakers’ skill, the movie is nonetheless something of a litmus test—how a viewer reacts to the mission itself will likely be determined by how the viewer feels about bin Laden, the American military, and the so-called war on terror. “Zero Dark Thirty” operates on several levels, and it functions against itself: even as the movie stokes excitement for the hunt for bin Laden, it stands outside the mission and—without actually posing questions about the operation—poses the mission itself as a question, by way of canny and conspicuous omissions in content, strategies in representation, and control of tone.
Yet, as debate in the wake of the Newtown murders revealed, there’s a peculiar aspect to the argument made by partisans of gun control. When gun-rights advocates assert the legitimacy of self-defense, gun-control advocates champion the police. The hidden premise of gun control is the state’s monopoly on force, the willing renunciation of the most potent form of self-defense in favor of collective defense—not the naïve wishing-away of violent crime but the assumption of effective law enforcement that would both thwart and obviate the proliferation of firearms. Suddenly, liberals find themselves the biggest proponents of the “thin blue line.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” suggests that there’s a lot of violence being done in the world by bin Laden and his followers; it offers little confidence in the power of diplomacy to oppose it (as, for instance, in the scenes suggesting the betrayal of a C.I.A. station chief in Pakistan by the Pakistani government); and it depicts Maya’s exertions with avid admiration.
One of the merits of “Zero Dark Thirty” is that it takes government work very seriously and recognizes that the use of force is one of its fundamental responsibilities. The movie shows government employees taking part in decisions regarding the deployment of mighty power and vast resources; the making of decisions of vast moment and immediate, possibly grave, even world-historical results. It depicts the overwhelming force of the Abbottabad raid—but it opens with violence of another sort, torture.
In fact, the movie presents torture as a seemingly inevitable outcome of the attacks.