Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong
If Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Stephen Gaghan were making hyperlink cinema in the years preceding Zero Dark Thirty, then what Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are making is more like citation cinema. There’s a fascination with phrases which become title cards, such as “black site” and “TRADECRAFT” with naming exact days and places for historical events, with the abbreviations which are obviously understood by people in the CIA but not so instantly for those of us outside the brotherhood of the agency. For example, “KSM” is an abbreviation I learned from other films, referring to key terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But ISI, for the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, was one I had to find on my own. The film is building its authenticity, its credentials for factuality, based on words. Words are what give Zero Dark Thirty its credibility, in the same way that the footnotes and citations give a research paper or history book its credibility. I suppose that the images probably match, in some fashion, the general look of a CIA station or a boardroom in D.C. or the exterior of a stealth helicopter. I have no doubt that CIA operatives like Maya (Chastain) have to pore over grainy little images in dingy back rooms, for example. On the whole, though, the images are wrong, and the words are insufficient. Zero Dark Thirty has such an interest in being a procedural drama faithful to the events of the bin Laden hunt, or at least it wants us to believe that it’s some kind of journalism. But it’s a failure as reportage, because every step forward has a few steps back. This is journalism, but there’s a composite character named “Maya” who basically spearheaded the bin Laden investigation by yelling a bunch as a midlevel analyst in Pakistan? This is journalism, but it thinks an Arabic translator would be useful in Abbottabad? (I was genuinely shocked at how interchangeable Maya’s Islamabad and Indiana Jones’s Cairo are.) This is journalism, but it’s more interested in seeming like it’s in the know than it is in depiction or explanation? Zero Dark Thirty is made well enough, but it’s handsome or dour where it had the potential to be serious.
Like the vast majority of Americans who have lived concurrently with it, I’m far from an expert on the War on Terror. I had never heard of the Camp Chapman incident before seeing it depicted in this film, despite the fact that I was eighteen when it happened and plenty old enough to keep track of that kind of stuff. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t know what was going to happen at Camp Chapman from the moment that we see Jennifer Ehle making a birthday cake for the guy who will blow her, and several other CIA operatives, into dust a few hours later. Zero Dark Thirty has about as much handle on these big dramatic moments as you’d expect from ’80s horror schlock. Put the date on it and whoosh, you just know someone’s gonna get blown up. Even the AIM conversation that Maya and Jessica are having with each other before Jessica’s career-defining meeting is the most hacky stuff. Talk to me when you can, Maya says, and it’s the last message she sends Jessica’s way. You can just hear the smug, know-it-all tone of the filmmakers saying “But she’ll never see that message!” Add in all this stuff about the offhand way Camp Chapman is introduced as a safe meeting point, the long wait Jessica and her team have, the way that they actively give up on the safety protocols in order for them to have this meeting. It’s part foolishness, but Maya’s AIM conversation is what’s meant to make this feel enjoyably morbid instead. All that to say that if this is journalistic, this is the yellowest stuff. Why not show Lassie getting blown up by the terrorist while you’re at it? Then again, the report Maya watches on TV manages to get a line in there about how Jessica had three children, so maybe it’s cool that we spare the collie.
For Zero Dark Thirty, the question of tragedy is personal, not institutional. The film begins with a black screen and the horrified sound of a woman’s voice calling an emergency number. A quick google finds that the film’s two 9/11 voice recordings are of real people, both used without asking the families of the deceased for permission. It’s the kind of information that makes it clear what kind of personal tragedy is appealing to the filmmakers, and that’s the loudest, most obvious kind. Voice messages from people about to die, people panicking in their last moments: those are the conversations which are meant to put us in that original state of mind. We are meant to fear and tremble a little bit in these opening moments of the film, and I don’t think it’s an accident that we go from those faceless shaking voices to torture. What happens at these black sites, the “enhanced interrogation” which includes waterboarding and sleep deprivation and a number of other illegal techniques, is focused primarily on Ammar (Reda Kateb) and his torture at the hands of Dan (Clarke). Dan has a fairly simple rule, which is that if Ammar lies, he will hurt him, and a simple addendum, that partial truths will be treated as lies. These dominate the first third of the movie, which is an interesting choice; the press and the trailers for this movie focused far more on Seal Team 6 and the presence of a pre-MCU Chris Pratt, where Jason Clarke is basically absent.
I don’t think I buy the “Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture” line, at least not firmly. The film finds Maya’s rough but typically hands-off treatment of prisoners to be generally more effective than Dan’s Abu Ghraib approach. One can argue about whether she gets to be the good cop with Ammar because Dan is the bad cop—it’s an argument worth having—but I don’t think the movie suggests we should be waterboarding more of these guys. There’s too much sympathy for Ammar when he comes up, vomiting water and mucus. Yet I don’t think Zero Dark Thirty finds this system tragic. It might be sad when Ammar starts yelling days of the week at random as Dan yells for the date of the next terrorist attack, but the problem with the inertia of the torture machine in Zero Dark Thirty is that it’s inefficient, not that it’s unethical. Even the hushed reaction to the dead body of Osama bin Laden, face largely hidden from the camera—dollars to doughnuts it’s because they know they can’t get someone who looks that much like him and don’t want to break the spell in those dramatic moments—is because of that sense of finality as opposed to a possibility of injustice. Years of Maya’s hard work culminate in a major, tripartite American triumph: kill Osama bin Laden, avenge the dead of 9/11, and declare a victory. What no one ever seems to wonder is why this mission is out to kill bin Laden as opposed to taking him alive. Lenihan (Pratt) has a team in charge of clearing the hard drives and papers from bin Laden’s basement office, calling it a “gold mine,” and lamenting that he’s only got four minutes instead of the ten he’d need at a minimum to get the goods. Wouldn’t a living bin Laden have been more useful than undisturbed hours to clear that room? All the same, the mission is to kill, not capture. It’s a goal that no one ever questions. Vigilantism is one of the few unambiguous goods in this film. It is wept over by sad children herded together in a room, sobbing occasionally. It’s a personal tragedy that these kids lost a father or an adult friend and will need therapy later on or whatever else we must think as we see them in pajamas and midnight blues. It’s an institutional triumph. I don’t think that’s moral ambiguity so much as it is glorified Sorkinist sophistry. “What kind of day has it been if there are crying children who witnessed the extrajudicial of the world’s most wanted terrorist?”
What Zero Dark Thirty reminds me of most is not another example of citation cinema, but an old-fashioned Hollywood biopic. They Died with Their Boots On is a 1941 Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland picture in which they play the Custers. In the film, George Armstrong Custer is portrayed as one of the lone voices of reason and decency in the Reconstruction years. As greedy railroad owners try to snap up Native American land (and Custer too), Custer brings discipline and order to a rowdy Western cavalry post. Simultaneously he gains evidence that a report of gold in the Black Hills was falsified by the railroad in order to bring in white settlers on Indian land. In the end, Custer goes into battle knowing that he and his men are doomed, but does so because he’s trying to protect others and is willing to sacrifice himself to do so. The film is presented as a basically accurate document, made near the peak of Custer apologetics in the parade of history, and it’s about as truthful as a Snapple cap.
Like Zero Dark Thirty, the vibe is more important than the actual facts of the matter. Custer’s ridiculous conduct at West Point and his equally ludicrous romantic image as a soldier are well known, and leaned into in They Died. We take these flourishes as a kind of proof of some other things which are not so easily found in evidence. In much the same way, the use of abbreviations and intelligence slang in Zero Dark Thirty allows us to believe in the veracity of the film even if we can’t credit it as real. More than that, both movies believe in an especially American myth at moments where American myth is especially desirable. They Died was released, fortuitously, around the same time as Pearl Harbor. The idea that defeat could be turned into glory, that the loss of a battle did not mean a moral failing on the part of the vanquished, must have been extremely attractive. Custer himself, the most individual soldier one could hope to depict on film, is part of the American myth too. One man with some moral fiber and the determination to sacrifice everything can make a change for the better. Maya of Zero Dark Thirty is basically the same kind of figure. In a strict environment with a tight chain of command, there is limited room for both Maya and Custer to do what they think is right, what history will use to prove them right. They are met by doubters, even corrupt figures as they push for years to achieve a goal they believe in. And while it requires that sacrifice—Custer’s life, Maya’s soul—they get to be right in the end. History will vindicate them. How vindicated you think the CIA will be based on their activity during the War on Terror probably tells the story of what you make of Zero Dark Thirty.