Zero Dark Thirty: The Counterintelligence Opera

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on January 17, 2013. 

During WWII, films about the ongoing conflict were commonplace. Conversely, the War on Terror has seen relatively few screen adaptations to date. Before 2012, United 93, with its shaky-cam cinematography, low-key performances and harrowing finale, was unquestionably the best film depiction of the current war. (The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 epic-in-miniature about bomb disposal experts in Iraq, was a close second.)

Now, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has replaced United 93 as the best of the War on Terror films. Combing United 93’s documentary-style visuals with Hurt Locker’s episodic structure, Zero Dark Thirty makes for an engrossing, and sometimes disturbing, cinematic experience.

From the opening titles onward, this film demands critical engagement from its viewers. A two-minute prologue consists of a black screen and audio clips from the 9/11 attacks, forcing audience members to project their own memories onto the dark screen. Moments later, it is 2004; the hunt for Bin Laden is already underway, Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaded, and the CIA is performing enhanced interrogations upon terror suspects. This sudden jump forward in time will be one of several in the course of the film. A typical, uninterrupted plotline is eschewed in favor of vignettes conveying the essence of the hunt for Bin Laden.

Is this the best possible narrative choice? Yes and no. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal certainly have created engrossing vignettes, filled with sharp dialogue (when was the last time “tautology” was used in film dialogue?) and moments of shocking violence. Nonetheless, by jumping so abruptly through time, Zero Dark Thirty significantly compresses the historical narrative. Every time the film moved on to a new chapter, I wondered what took place in the unseen years between fade out and fade in. (There is a ten-hour miniseries waiting to be made about these events.)

As such, do not watch Zero Dark Thirty expecting a definitive account of the hunt for Bin Laden. By zeroing in on smaller scenes, the filmmakers seek to convey the ethos of the era, rather than every historical detail. This film is a meditation on the War on Terror, more akin to an opera or tone poem than a typical Hollywood thriller.

Like any good opera, the main characters (all composites, save for James Gandolfini’s Leon Panetta) are not only individuals, but also incarnations of greater concepts. Dan (Jason Clarke) embodies that paradox of warfare, the educated man who becomes a ruthless torturer while at war. Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is tragically flawed — a counterintelligence operative who trusts too much and pays a terrible price for her lax approach to protocol. Bradley (Kyle Chandler) is an unimaginative, but politically astute, bureaucrat. George (Mark Strong) is a man filled with righteous anger — in an incredible monologue, he demands “targets” and “people to kill” — yet he is still capable of thinking rationally, like a master detective. Patrick (Joel Edgerton), the head Navy SEAL on the Abbottabad raid, is thoughtful and funny, but a consummate professional nonetheless.

And then there is Maya (Jessica Chastain.) In Hinduism, “maya” means “illusion,” and illusion is certainly central to Maya’s personality. She dons a number of disguises, masterfully interviews uncooperative suspects, and sublimates her entire personality to the fight against al-Qaeda. When Maya says that she knows “nothing else” but the hunt for Bin Laden, she is unsettling, but honest. She is counterintelligence, and nothing else.

In my opinion, the Oscar and Screen Actor’s Guild award are Chastain’s for the taking. Maya is a force of nature. She is tireless, heroic and perceptive. She is also manipulative, antisocial, fanatical in her cause, blunt (sometimes hilariously so) and arrogant.

Additionally, by torturing prisoners, she engages in un-American behavior in the name of protecting American citizens, yet seems unaware that she crosses moral boundaries. After all, she believes (or, at least, claims, in order to unnerve her peers) that she has been spared from assassination to finish the job.

Overall, I admired Maya for her conviction, but I never liked her. Chastain is to be commended for throwing herself so completely into this role, which blends the best and worst elements of the modern American military state.

The filmmakers do suggest that torture produced some of the data about Bin Laden (a claim that has been vigorously denounced by politicians, although not so much by the CIA itself). Nonetheless, Zero Dark Thirty is not a pro-torture film. Early scenes of enhanced interrogations are frankly repulsive to watch. Later on, the CIA agents watch incredulously as President Obama denounces torture, but, interestingly enough, these CIA agents become sympathetic characters only after torture is banned.

After the renditions end, we learn that Jessica is a mother, that Dan has a gentle side and is strung out from his torture work and that Maya is so very alone. By highlighting their characters’ better qualities after the enhanced interrogations cease, Bigelow and Boal comment obliquely on the American empire’s moral foundation during the War on Terror. The American state lost some of its moral high ground by embracing torture, yet regained something after renouncing torture.

Did torture actually help produce information about Bin Laden’s courier? Again, watching this film will not give viewers definitive historical answers. Still, torture was part of the War on Terror narrative, and so it must naturally play a role in Kathryn Bigelow’s vast counterintelligence opera.

And what a brave film Zero Dark Thirty is. Very few big-budget thrillers have been made with so many unnamed characters, or with such an anecdotal, jumpy narrative. Unlike more cliché-ridden action pictures, Zero Dark Thirty is actually dull at times, a calculated decision to convey the exhaustion and tedium of the long war. Most of the film consists of people talking — but when violence does appear, as during the recreation of the 2005 London bombings, or an attempted hit on Maya, the guns and explosions are painfully loud. Violence is in no way glamorized (a clear rebuke to the work of Michael Bay).

Ultimately, the film catches up with the Navy SEAL team sent in to kill Bin Laden. We in the audience know how this sequence will end. As such, the raid on Abbottabad is not thrilling as pure cinematic action. However, it is fascinating to see how, after years of frustrating piecemeal detective work, the U.S. military leaps into action with mighty force to kill Bin Laden. This one man, who financed acts of terror worldwide, is ultimately just one puny middle-aged man, hiding in an ugly concrete house. With that said, when we glimpse his silhouette behind a curtain, moments before his death, the effect is chilling. After such a long hunt – there he is.

One criticism, though: I highly doubt the real SEAL who shot Bin Laden walked around in a daze afterward. That is purely an operatic touch.

In conclusion, although marketed as a docudrama and filmed with the low-key tropes of cinema vérité, Zero Dark Thirty is not a true docudrama. This film is an art-house thriller, an impressionistic interpretation of the death of Osama Bin Laden and the War on Terror. Once more books are written about the hunt for Bin Laden — when filmmakers have more data than simply firsthand accounts to draw from — then a more in-depth portrayal of these events can be filmed. I look forward to seeing that film someday.

For now, though, Zero Dark Thirty will have to suffice as the definitive cinematic statement about the War on Terror. It is long, thoroughly not entertaining and paced rather slowly, with many themes and motifs lurking under its surface, but nonetheless it is some sort of masterpiece.

The cover photograph is archived directly from the original web layout. Source: 

http://the-daily-pulp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/zero-dark-thirty1.jpg. 

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