A great deal of Sturm und Drang has been kicked up over the torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty, the Kathryn Bigelow-helmed story of the global search for Osama Bin Laden starring Jessica Chastain (nominated yesterday for the Best Actress Academy Award in her role), about whether Americans ever tortured enemy detainees, about how valuable that torture was, if it ever actually occurred, and the movie’s adherence to “truth” concerning such matters. What’s been overlooked, it seems, is that fact that Zero Dark Thirty is ultimately a work of fiction, not a real-time chronicle of how things happened. Even documentary footage wouldn’t necessarily be a truthful account of the events surrounding the capture of Osama Bin Laden, as editing and bias has a frequent, and sometimes unpleasant, way of sneaking into such things.
No, what Zero Dark Thirty is about, really, is one woman – Mya (Chastain) – and her nearly decade-long quest to find and order the execution of Bin Laden on behalf of the United States and the victims of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Recruited young and accredited early when section chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) tells fellow operative Dan (Jason Clarke) the boys in Washington say she’s a “killer,” Mya remains just shy of cipher, a kind of allegory for the nation itself, and its growing understanding of this new conflict. At first, she’s timid at the sight of a tortured prisoner, but learns to tolerate the brutality. It’s possible she never “accepts” it, per se, but understands it’s a different kind of warfare for a different kind of war.
Curiously, because Zero Dark Thirty isn’t – and can’t be – “real,” to argue its attempts at truthfulness is suspicious; it begins with text on the screen identifying it’s based on true events and accounts of individuals present at events and conversations, but screenwriter Mark Boal, according to the New York Daily News, was quoted as saying, “It’s a movie. I’ve been saying from the beginning it’s a movie. That shouldn’t be too confusing.” Ah, but it is, Mark.
We live in an age where fiction and drama are becoming more interactive with every passing day, and the consequences of real drama and real fiction appear to be getting somewhat … fuzzy. When a Call of Duty first-person shooter allows heroic players to take on swaths of enemy fighters, the vision of a quiet, complicated, 25-minute long attack on Bin Laden’s compound must be somewhat confusing. When James Bond in Skyfall can find superterrorist Javier Bardem with a flick of the watch and drop of the pants, could it be there are enough people believing that’s some form of reality, due to its supposed adherence to “realism,” that its becoming some form of reality? Audiences cheered when Liam Neeson and Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer tortured the bad guy, because the fiction told us their victims were irredeemably “bad.” When the question of these practices taking place in a closer simulacrum of reality – without such clear demarcation lines – it becomes unsettling.
That having been said, Zero Dark Thirty is a very good movie. It’s slow in parts and could stand to have some clearer, better-edited dialogue, but even these choices seem to be artistic. When director Bigelow drags the running time a bit, it just happens to correspond with the lack of progress intelligence services were making in finding Bin Laden. Names begin to blur together – accept the one, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a courier Mya is convinced could lead to Bin Laden – during a time when so much was having to be learned about these shadowy foes and their unwavering fanaticism. The torture is brutal, as it should be, and the violence is sudden and jarring, as it should be.
Is it uncomfortable to watch? At times, but shouldn’t any representation of warfare? Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was heralded for its unyielding depiction of the invasion of Normandy, but that was long after most of what World War II was about had been declassified and consumed, been swept through the bright-and-shiny patriotism of popular culture at the time, and contextualized (or, perhaps, mythologized) in a way audiences could understand. Because the War on Terror is so fresh in so many minds – and it’s unlikely we’ll never be able to forget thanks to the ubiquitous presence of Internet delivery screens – it remains a difficult subject. (What will the “hunt for Osama Bin Laden” films look like in six decades?)
Because she serves as both the film’s protagonist and audience surrogate, and because she’s such a strong symbol for the frustration, drive and eventual victory of the United States itself, the entire film hangs on Jessica Chastain’s performance, and the Best Actress race is hers to lose. She’s vulnerable, witty, strong-willed and sympathetic, often in a single scene. If awarding anything to Zero Dark Thirty – Bigelow wasn’t nominated for Best Director – is mistaken for some kind of endorsement for the methods depicted within it, Chastain getting passed over will be a disappointment.
In a hotly contested year, it’s sad to see that Jason Clarke isn’t receiving more accolades for the role of Dan, a CIA operative, apparent psychologist, and torturer. It must be unpleasant work for any actor to portray torture in so serious a fashion, but Clarke is unnervingly authentic as a man who truly believes he’s his prisoners’ friend, but will hurt them if they lie. There’s no shortage of sympathy for his – and others’ – victims, especially from Dan and Mya themselves. When Dan flippantly attempts to explain his need to return to Washington and get away from his soul-staining work, there’s never a doubt of the true, human cost of these methods, whatever their results.
To its towering credit, Zero Dark Thirty successfully walks the line between fiction and fantasy, never coming down on one side of the torture debate. It could serve as a kind of Rorschach test for those viewing it; some could see it as condoning those methods, while others could see it as condemning them. The reality, though, is that Zero Dark Thirty merely attempts to tell a story – a complicated, emotional, devastating story – as best it can. There are characters, presumably representative of opinions or individuals at the time, who say things and behave in a fashion presumably representative of opinions or individuals at the time. That doesn’t make them “wrong” or “right,” it’s merely a compilation of the decisions made to tell that particular story. GRAB IT!
Zero Dark Thirty, a Annapurna Pictures production distributed by Columbia Pictures directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton, is 157 minutes long and rated R.