The Brilliantly Frustrating Ambiguity of “Zero Dark Thirty”

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Just before the limited release of Zero Dark Thirty, I wrote a column for this site that took to task those who hadn’t seen the film yet but were already howling about its portrayal of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques — torture by any other name — and their effect on the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The criticism ranged from those who believed that by taking no moral stance on torture and instead simply presenting it as a fact of the times, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were in fact issuing tacit approval of torture, to those who couldn’t fathom how any critic could detach him or herself from the content of the film and laud it despite knowing that it seems to falsely link torture to the capture of Bin Laden. My point at the time was simple: shut up until you actually see the movie and know what the hell you’re talking about. I hadn’t seen Zero Dark Thirty and therefore knew I couldn’t comment on it with any kind of intellectual honesty so I was willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt until such time as I had the chance to take in what I assumed would be a complex and potentially unsettling moviegoing experience for myself.

Well, yesterday I saw Zero Dark Thirty.

First of all, despite the cries of those who don’t understand how anyone can, considering its often brutal and disturbing content and political implications, heap praise upon the film, there’s simply no other way to say it: Zero Dark Thirty is a brilliant, astonishing, flat-out breathtaking piece of filmmaking. I haven’t seen every movie sure to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination this year, but Zero Dark Thirty is without question the best movie I’ve seen all year — and if I’m honest with myself, perhaps in the last five years or even more. It’s that powerful. It’s so flawlessly crafted and the feats it manages to pull off are so impressive on both a technical and emotional level that I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like it. If nothing else, it accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of taking ten long years, condensing them to a shockingly clear two-and-a-half-hours, and then making those two-and-a-half hours go by in what honestly feels like an-hour-and-a-half. Bigelow and Boal proved their mettle with The Hurt Locker but here they swing for the fences and pull off something that goes even farther than that. What they’ve accomplished is extraordinary and shouldn’t be diminished.

Now, on to the topic of so much debate: the torture. Yes, there’s a lot of it. And yes, it’s difficult to watch at times and to reconcile with the notion of us as the “good guys” — and as I expected from the beginning, that’s exactly the point. One of my favorite things about the film is not simply that it takes an amoral stance on everything you’re seeing but that by doing so you get bits and pieces of real human emotion that convey both a brutal acceptance of the horrors of the so-called war on terror and a revulsion to them and to war in general. The politics of the film can’t be pigeonholed — and I think it’s infinitely more effective for it. You can look at the matter-of-fact manner in which the CIA’s “detainee program,” as it’s benignly referred to in the film many times, is handled and interpret it as pro-torture or merely the implication that torture was a necessary evil during the Bush years in apprehending those who were seeking to destroy us. Then again, you can look at the scenes of torture themselves and interpret them as Bigelow and Boal challenging us to unflinchingly face what was done in our name and ask whether it was worth it and if it ever is. The ethical ambiguity onscreen forces the audience into the uncomfortable position of having to sort out for itself what its seeing and what it all means, and the result is mesmerizing and at times overwhelming. Very few films put this much onto your shoulders.

Zero Dark Thirty indeed compresses a decade into a startlingly fast run time and what that means is that years go by in a flash. Does the movie actually imply that the torture of a detainee in the early 2000s at a CIA black site ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden? An argument can certainly be made that while the scene in which the prisoner in question gives up an eventually important name involves some clever trickery on the part of the CIA, the months of brutality he endured had something to do with his decision to talk. But again, the movie takes a frustratingly unclear path and one that I think adds to its potency. I will say that while I was watching the movie unfold I was always cognizant that I was, in fact, watching a movie. Yes, it’s made in a style that at times resembles a documentary and it’s pitched as being as close to the truth as possible, but there’s simply no denying that it’s still based on actual accounts of what happened. It’s not a work of absolute non-fiction and only an idiot would think that no license, for the sake of art or merely time constraints, was taken.

There’s one thing I did find myself thinking as I rolled the movie over and over again in my head after I left the theater, in regard to the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation. I knew that I’d seen another work recently that had, far more unmistakably than Zero Dark Thirty could be interpreted to, made the case that torture works: Homeland. In the first season of Homeland, Sgt. Nicholas Brody is turned by Al Qaeda mastermind Abu Nazir by “breaking” him, essentially having Brody tortured to within an inch of his life and sanity at which point Nazir suddenly appears like an angel out of nowhere to quietly offer food, water, kindness, etc. It’s possible that this is the same thing we’re supposed to assume eventually happens to the initial detainee in Zero Dark Thirty — that he’s “broken” by the time he gives up the name the CIA is looking for — but it’s much more pronounced in Homeland. I think this dynamic was simply overlooked by most people when it came to a discussion on torture and the efficacy of it because in Homeland it was the enemy doing the torturing and we’ve come to accept that (and also of course because Homeland’s storyline isn’t based on fact).

It can definitely be considered cause for concern that there are people out there who are going to see what they want to see in Zero Dark Thirty and that it may lead to quite a few misperceptions, considering that the film will stand for some as history’s first write-through of the events leading up to the killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist. But I said from the beginning that it’s not Kathryn Bigelow nor Mark Boal’s responsibility to spoon-feed the audience and, as artists and filmmakers, they’re not required to offer some sort of disclaimer to salve the potential wounds of those who might interpret the film “the wrong way.” Zero Dark Thirty is admittedly more than just your average movie and to argue otherwise would be stupid. But it’s also not meant to be a definitive chronicle, without flaw or latitude. In the end, it does what it does better than, I believe, just about any other film that could be made from this subject matter.

It’s a towering achievement.

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