Zero Dark Thirty is not a ''pro-torture'' film. It's also not much of an ''anti-torture'' film, either, in so far as it isn't simply interested in telling us torture is bad. Instead, director Kathryn Bigelow's fearless critique of the War on Terror digs deep into the moral hazards of torture. It's far from an apolitical retelling of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but it's also a surprisingly conflicted meditation on what we're willing to sacrifice in the name of justice. In other words, Zero Dark Thirty does not lend itself to congressional reprimands or bloviated cable news debates -- not that it's stopped either, unfortunately.
The film opens on a pitch-black screen, with the sounds of news reports and 9-1-1 calls from September 11, 2001, blaring. When images finally brighten the screen, we're looking inside a secret prison run by the CIA. Ammar, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's nephew (a fictional amalgam, played by Reda Kateb), is strung up into a so-called "stress position" by Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA interrogator. After stepping outside for a brief moment, Dan and his team of masked accomplices cut the man down, scream in his face, and waterboard him. "When was the last time you saw bin Laden!?" Dan shouts, while pouring water over the man's mouth so he cannot breathe. "When was the last time you saw bin Laden!?" It doesn't work; the man doesn't give up any information. In the corner of the room, a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain) watches with the slightest look of shock on her face. This is her first interrogation.
Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty continues to follow over the next decade as Maya hunts for bin Laden. She toughens up quick, though. Immediately after Dan suggests that Maya take a break from his "interrogation", she urges him to keep going—she's not stepping aside. It's a fascinating play of gender dynamics in an impossibly stressful situation. Maya's first instinct is to blanch at torture, yet when challenged she doesn't hesitate to show that she can stomach the nasty side of terrorist hunting. At that moment, Bigelow's intent comes into focus: Zero Dark Thirty is a feminist film wedged inside a ripped-from-the-headlines action thriller.
Eventually, in what may be the movie's most amoral moment, Maya and Dan get a pseudonymous name of bin Laden's courier from Ammar: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. The twist? He gives them the name willingly, over a meal of hummus, without being tortured -- but only after spending 92 hours stuffed into a small crate without food or water. Zero Dark Thirty doesn't offer any easy ways to interpret his admission, either. It merely poses the question, then dives into a lengthy, compelling second act that stretches Maya's years-long hunt for Kuwaiti's true name and location.
How many filmmakers can pull off this sort of wizardry? How many can weave together tense action sequences with the fierce subtext of feminine authority, all while making a stripped-down film about the most famous manhunt of our time? Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal successfully blend incisive, captivating ideas into Zero Dark Thirty without abandoning the demands of their procedural-like narrative. What they've accomplished isn't just impressive -- it's stupefying.
Bigelow's greatest trick, though, might be the anxiety she stirs during the film's depiction of the famous Abbottabad raid that killed bin Laden in 2011. Even if you know every major beat of the raid, the extended sequence is agonizingly tense. It doesn't matter that we know how it happened. Bigelow recreates the scene with a master's eye for dramatic action. As the SEAL team (led by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) glides toward bin Laden's compound, the cameras transition to a stark-looking sort of night vision that places the audience in the raid. It's an obvious genre move, but Bigelow pulls it off with a grace that further heightens the tension of Zero Dark Thirty's climax. The only sequence that may be better is the film's final shot, where Chastain's face expresses everything that this film spends two-and-a-half-hours building toward.
Yet, a flood of criticism -- specifically, about those early torture scenes and how Ammar's admission helped Maya track down bin Laden -- suggests that Zero Dark Thirty can be easily misinterpreted. Several prominent politicians, as well as the director of the CIA, claim that torture didn't reveal any information that led to bin Laden's capture and death. If this is true, Zero Dark Thirty has a potentially deceptive narrative that eschews absolute accuracy for the sake of artistic expression. I don't think this is a bad thing. Consider the stunning way Bigelow manages to confront an ugly part of recent U.S. policy, forcing us to face the moral complexities that fueled the abhorrent permission of torture. Any film can tell you torture is bad. Zero Dark Thirty makes you think about why it happened.
This is a brilliant, problematic, film. See it at your own risk.