in Zero Dark Thirty
By Jonathan Price
In darkness this film (2012, directed by Kathryn Bigelow) begins and ends in darkness, not even revealing its title until it’s over and the credits are rolling. And it is both a mystery and “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” Is it the truth? “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the” (Wallace Stevens). Truth is elusive. It’s true that Osama bin Laden is dead. But it’s hard to imagine a viewer who sees this film and wonders if that’s true, or wonders if its cast of characters will eventually track down and kill UbL (to use his sometime screen nickname, creating another mystery) in Abbottabad, Pakistan, living modestly and unknown with others in a wellconcealed three-story walled compound near some goats.
We’ve all read this on the news. Do we really go to the movies to learn the truth or to encounter history? I think not; we go to see, to be entertained, and to be challenged. This film does all of those. Some want it to do something else. Steve Coll in The New York Review of Books, wanted it to focus more on the lack of torture in the true hunt for UbL and wanted it to be both journalism and history. But those who expect to get their journalism and history from feature films are inevitably going to be disappointed or misled; I hope that’s why there are still newspapers and books. (Those who have not seen the film and wish not to have their experience predigested or their surprises revealed should abandon this review here.)
Just as the film hides under an undisclosed and initially mysterious title, many characters and events in the film are similarly mysterious or double-edged or undisclosed. No one here and nothing, despite the drive of the plot, is simple. The central character Maya (Jessica Chastain), has no last name and only a dim past, and no clear friends or family and is herself a composite, presumably based on a number of CIA figures. But she is compelling, obsessed with the hunt for UbL, willing to fly to Pakistan, watch others tortured, glue herself to her computer screen, examine videos and photographs, and eat sporadically. As one of the team that will actually storm the bin Laden compound says, commenting on whether the mission will be successful, that he is confident because of Maya’s certainty. She appears in various guises, at different locations—in svelte Washington woman’s suit, in fatigues, in discreet scarf, in niqab. She in increasing frustration writes with felttipped pen numbers on the glass wall of her Washington superior to remind him of the days elapsed without action since they have discovered UbL’s hiding place. And in the end, she is right, but in the end she is also very alone, in a vast C-5 cargo plane, going wherever she wants to; unfortunately, it’s unclear where that might be. She has been shown to have no lover, and had entered the CIA for mysterious reasons at the end of high
|Kathryn Bigelow was awarded an|
Oscar for Best Director
(of The Hurt Locker)
Of course we meet many of Maya’s colleagues and superiors, very few of whom have last names. Her closest male friend in the service, Dan, has returned to Washington from Pakistan and points East, to don a suit, and sit behind a desk because he has “seen too many men naked.” Dan is willing to punish detainees, whom he talks to in a brand of apparent international slang . He offers cooperating victims food like orange drinks, tabbouleh and hummus. He tells Maya she can take off her mask as she enters a torture session because the current victim will never see the light of day again. But Dan also has a Ph.D. and is fond of some pet monkeys on a base, and grieves when he learns they have been killed. Like her CIA boss in Islamabad, Maya has been placed “on a list” and eventually has to leave the country. Her closest female friend Jessica is blown up by a bomb along with six CIA colleagues while texting Maya and awaiting the arrival in a remote Afghan outpost of a new contact with access to UbL. Jessica had baked him a cake—not a skill we associate with CIA operatives; we never know it until her death, but she left behind a husband and two children. Jessica had begun as a rival and become a friend and confidante. This surprising duality is also shown in Maya’s attitude toward her immediate boss in Pakistan, whom she threatens with a congressional hearing to get his cooperation, but supports sympathetically when he is forced to leave Pakistan because his CIA identity has become known. Either an ultimate irony or a recognition that this isn’t really a religious war, the CIA leader who approves a key payoff, is shown in Islamic prayer before he makes the decision.
The movie is about this near anonymous collection of American agents and how they go about locating and then eliminating UbL. It’s not so much a detective story as a police procedural. It’s about “Tradecraft,” a term highlighted in a subtitle and used both of Americans and of the enemy group surrounding UbL The film uses puzzling code or abbreviations like UbL. Or KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of 9/11) or the title itself, militarese for 0030 hours, when the assault on UbL began. The subtitles subdivide the film and offer information, but we don’t easily understand how they fit together to offer a coherent narrative. One such subtitle is “The Saudi Group”—in another world or a less fraught world, this might be a corporate investment group, or a bunch of CIA operatives focusing on Saudi Arabia. It is neither. A member of the Saudi group, Amar is the first detainee, the one we see interrogated, subjected briefly to waterboarding, to sound assault, to nakedness, to dogcollaring, to the “box.” There are also “cordial” sessions with cooperating terrorists, hightech listening to one’s phone calls home to his Kuwaiti mother. We even see a Kuwaiti sheik awarded a gaudy Lamborghini by securing the phone number that makes this eavesdropping possible. These all amount to the varied tradecraft strategies of detectives and hunted ones.
So as viewers we are enmeshed within the inevitable web of this investigative process and thoroughly stuck or drawn in. We can’t extricate ourselves, we can’t tear ourselves away. This is what any firstrate film or thriller does--though some great films require immense patience and concentration, and this isn’t quite in that league. Most viewers who pay any attention to news know not just the outcome, but an immense percentage of what will happen. Still, we are inevitably shocked by the punctuation of this manhunt with retaliations or attacks from those who are hunted. Though it is not really clear who is responsible for the inevitable and jarring interruptions to the narrative of interrogation and discovery which is the film’s main drive: to a series of explosions at points distant and close that are terrifying and terrorist events. A bombing on a London bus where no one we “know” dies, an explosion in an Islamabad hotel where Maya and Jessica are socializing and even, for a short while, relaxed. Perhaps this is a warning to Maya about trying to have a personal life, or even a beer. No one seems to die in this explosion. A black cat subtly and unnoticed glides across a roadway soon to be occupied by the vehicle which will blow up Jessica and six associates. As viewers, we never find out who plans these episodes or how they are connected. The closest we come, until the end, to UbL is his supposed courier Abu al Kuwaiti, a nom de guerre but sufficient identification ultimately to lead Maya and her cohort to his identity and his lair, who makes cellphone calls from a moving white SUV. We only see bin Laden himself at a distance and obliquely, when he is dead, lying on the top floor in Abbottabad, or the outline of his prominent nose and beard emerging from a body bag when Maya finally identifies his corpse at the attack base in Afghanistan.
The final sequence, despite its satisfying conclusion, is also disorienting and double-edged. The “Canaries” of American special forces arrive in stealth helicopters sporting headsets with multiple eyes that make them look like space aliens. The Abbottabad compound itself is a fairly domestic household of notvery terrifying aging adult males, soon eliminated by American forces, surrounded by a somewhat sympathetic and cowering group of wives and children.
What are we to make of this film? Americans like success stories, and it is a success story of effort and intense skill rewarded. It is not a defense of torture nor is it journalism nor is it history. It is not these things because it is not a narrative, a written account with an obvious single voice. This is, after all, the difference between feature film and the written word, which offers comments and almost by definition, is far more articulate. The only words the film gives us are the infrequent subtitles which locate it occasionally in space and time or seem to offer a structure…such as “Saudi Group” or “2003” or “The Canaries.” But these are fragmented, as the hunt for Osama bin Laden is fragmented, and they are not actually a narrative. It is not “the truth.” But it gets us or many of us to raise questions and to think about the events and especially the people that it pictures. It gets us to wonder how a Ph.D. who occasionally tortures detainees also loves feeding pet monkeys ice cream cones, and decides to retreat to a suit and Langley, how a woman with children who likes to bake cakes and is a sophisticated analyst can become vulnerable to a bomb by a contact she trusts, how Maya feels when she is finally victorious and alone after ten years of effort.
Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Price