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Zero Dark Thirty



ZDT poster

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) joins a curious set of films that includes Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995), Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) and United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006), among others.  You know what is going to happen, so the filmmaker has to generate tension and suspense despite this.  Kathryn Bigelow delivers this with remarkable power in her film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, or UBL as the CIA referred to him.  Focused on the CIA analyst leading the hunt, Maya (Jessica Chastain), Zero Dark Thirty is compelling, gripping, thrilling and disturbing, striking the viewer in the head, heart and guts.

Zero Dark Thirty effectively begins where Paul Greengrass’ film United 93 ended.  The opening “scene” of ZDT sets the tone, as a black screen fills the frame with only the ominous date, September 11, 2001, visible.  Recorded messages pepper the soundtrack, (presumably) the actual recordings of calls made to relatives aboard flight United 93, and 911 calls made from within the World Trade Center.  Although, like the rest of the world, I watched the destruction of the Twin Towers with mounting horror, voices of the doomed was not something I had heard before.  Particularly chilling and moving were the desperate pleas of a woman describing the blazing floor beneath her, and the 911 operator trying to offer comfort, before the woman is cut off and the operator can only say “Hello?  Hello?  Oh my God…”

The presence of such “real-life” footage places the viewer in the midst of events, a conceit that continues throughout the film and is achieved both narratively and stylistically.  The following scene drops us into the middle of an interrogation scene, with terror suspect Ammar (Reda Kateb) beaten by hooded figures while Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA operative, questions him.  This scene introduces our protagonist, Maya, fresh arrived from Washington.  The cinematography is intimate, the editing abrupt, cutting from close-ups of one face to another, as the frame wavers slightly.  The soundtrack is charged with menace, both from the sounds of the suspect being pummelled and Dan’s threats: “You lie to me, I hurt you”.  This approach permeates this film, Bigelow’s camera often placing the viewer at an uncomfortable proximity to the action onscreen.

Nor is this action necessarily violent – even during briefings with Maya’s team, the camera sits like an extra attendee, almost but not quite at the invasive level.  Never is there a look direct to camera, which adds to the sense of intrusion – we are there, somehow involved but not a part of the story, looking on from a position that is uncomfortable because of its uncertainty.  The tension generated by this uncertainty is increased by intercutting the fictionalised story of Maya and her team with dramatisations of actual events, highlighted by super-text that informs the viewer of the date and time.  This foreshadows what will happen, such as when a bus appears and the caption declares that this is London, July 7 2005, and the viewer knows what is coming.  This attack, as well as the bombing of the Islamabad Marriot Hotel and a US base in Afghanistan, still delivers a shock when the explosion comes, not because it is unexpected, but because it is so utterly incongruous.  A bus driving through London is not supposed to blow up; people sitting in a hotel restaurant are not meant to be flung to the floor by an explosion.  ZDT communicates to a very sheltered person (me) an approximation of the shock and horror of terrorist attacks, and while I may know intellectually what is coming, the visceral impact is still something I am unprepared for.

The film’s suturing of “actual” and fictional events anchors the viewer further within the events of the narrative.  Just as Maya is discomfited by the torture of Ammar, so are we (more on the torture later).  Just as she receives a confusing plethora of information, so are we confronted with a bewildering range of locations, characters and events.  Super-text informs us of the scenario, but it often reads “CIA Black Site” at “Undisclosed Location”, presenting a fragmentary look into a covert world.  This seems obvious – ZDT is a film about secret agents doing secret things – but Bigelow’s presentation allows us to vicariously experience Maya’s investigation, scenes pieced together with little central propulsion, just as the hunt for UBL is pieced together through scraps and snatches of information.  Profoundly postmodern, the film is the search for a master narrative, an attempt to regain an understanding that was shattered by the events of 9/11.

The dialogue is peppered with jargon, a feature of the genre.  Spy film dialogue is similar to that of hard-boiled noir, as it conveys both the environment and the people shaped within it, but it varies depending on the type of espionage being depicted.  The jargon of ZDT, much like that of the Bourne franchise, is very different from the rather charming public school banter of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or even the office chat of the Jack Ryan franchise.  Terse, cold and impersonal, even in moments of high emotion, spy jargon expresses the post-human sensibility of contemporary espionage.  Not only is intelligence the gathering and assembly of information, but the people involved become cyphers as well.  It is perhaps not surprising that torture would emerge within this environment, empathy and humanity placed to one side as human beings become simple receptacles of information.  This dehumanisation is one of the more chilling aspects of the film.

Critics such as Slazoj Zizek and Naomi Wolf have accused ZDT of endorsing torture, with Wolf going so far as to liken Bigelow to Leni Riefensthal.  There are several problems with this view, which is an imposed reading rather than a careful analysis.  Torture is depicted, including the beating of suspects, waterboarding and threats to turn Arab suspects over to Israel (who are, presumably, even more brutal).  But it is easy to overstate the representation of torture rather than consider it in context.  Firstly, the torture occupies only a small portion of the film.  Whereas 24 has multiple scenes of torture-as-spectacle, seemingly as integral to the drama as gunfights and explosions, and Rendition (Gavin Hook, 2007) presents prolonged scenes of torture specifically to criticise the practice, ZDT depicts one victim, in the first act, with scenes that feature him being water-boarded and shut in a box.  Secondly, torture of suspects is one of a variety of methods used within the context of an investigation.  Surveillance of suspects, monitoring of financial transactions and commercial travel, monitoring of phone calls and e-mails, paid and bribed sources, reviewing and re-evaluating existing intelligence – all of these feed into the investigation.  Crucially, the piece of information extracted from a tortured suspect is found to already be in the CIA’s possession, making the torture redundant.  The fortified house in Pakistan that turns out to be the hideout of Bin Laden is discovered by following a different suspect, further demonstrating the futility of torture.  Wolf and Zizek might see this as reason that ZDT “should” launch into a criticism of the torture programme, and the fact that it does not is grounds to condemn the film.

I have a big problem with imposed readings, the suggestion that a film (or any text) “should” do what reader X decides is right.  Rather than declaring that the text is only morally permissible if it takes the stance that reader X dictates, why not look hard at what the text actually does and says?  Zizek dismisses this sort of response with the declaration that torture is simply wrong, and no debate about it is necessary.  He has a point – I agree that torture has no place in a civilised society – but his evidence for Zero Dark Thirty’s endorsement of torture is dubious.  ZDT presents torture as part of CIA procedure, which Zizek calls “normalisation”, perhaps to echo the “banality of evil” used in reference to the mathematical precision of the Holocaust.  When President Obama appears on the television stating that the United States does not engage in torture, the CIA agents barely react.  This may lend credence to Zizek’s argument: the film offers little reaction to the torture and therefore makes it normal.  Zizek argues that ZDT is far more immoral than 24 because of its failure to present torture as horrific, making it part of business as usual: “The normalisation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is a sign of the moral vacuum we are gradually approaching”, says Zizek.  I suggest, however, that business as usual in ZDT is itself disturbing.

As mentioned above, Zero Dark Thirty is concerned with the search for a grand narrative, the world shattered into post-human cyphers of information.  These cyphers express the only reaction to the torture: Maya grimaces and looks away from the suffering victim; Dan returns to the US because he has seen enough.  This raises accusations that the discomfort of white Americans is of greater significance than the actual suffering of Middle Eastern Muslims.  There is an established argument that Hollywood always privileges white Americans over any other demographic, ignoring the suffering of (in this case) Middle Eastern Muslims who are being physically and psychologically harmed.  I consider myself a liberal, critical of the military-industrial complex, but am dubious of Hollywood being an uncritical promoter of this complex.  I am dubious because accusations like those of Zizek and Wolf overstate the case to a self-righteous and patronising degree, stating their imposed readings as self-evident truths of some undefined utopian ideology.  The subject of Zero Dark Thirty is the CIA hunt for UBL, and the people involved in this hunt.  I see nothing wrong with this dramatic, compelling and relevant subject, and the way that the subject is handled in the film presents a grim and unsettling picture.  It is not an outright condemnation like Rendition or Green Zone (Greengrass, 2010), but it is very arrogant to criticise filmmakers for not doing something they never set out to do.

Furthermore, Zero Dark Thirty does not endorse torture because the practice proves to be redundant in the course of the investigation.  Nor is the investigation itself presented in a positive light, because at no point is there any sense of triumph.  Maya has her victories, such as when her station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) grants her further resources, and she and her colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) make breakthroughs.  The final assault on Bin Laden’s compound is not presented as a gung-ho mission, with Special Ops guys back-slapping and high-fiving, but with all the seriousness that befits an incursion into enemy territory when the stakes are very high.  When the team penetrate the house, Bigelow maintains the uncomfortable intimacy that has run throughout the film, which escalates into an incredibly tense set piece.  Viewed largely through the team’s night-vision goggles, the compound takes on an unworldly, threatening quality, vision restricted by closed doors, staircase curves and bends in corridors.  Violence occurs in quick bursts of gun fire, shocking in its suddenness with a sound design that emphasises its immediacy.  Tension and fear permeates the sequence, a microcosm of the film as a whole.  The viewer is placed in close proximity to the events onscreen, allowing us to feel the threat and danger posed to the soldiers.  Nor are these soldiers presented as heroes – the film presents them as highly-trained, highly-equipped professional killers.  Terse commands, again in military jargon, are the order of the day, rather than bravado and machismo.  Once again, we see a dangerous world of post-human cyphers, operating on the basis of disembodied instructions through modern technology.

The eventual identification of the corpse of UBL is not accompanied by whoops of delight or shouts of triumph.  At best, there is relief, relief that something has been accomplished in this on-going struggle.  But what has truly been achieved?  Considering the events of the film in context, a viewer would be aware that the death of Bin Laden has not ended the War on Terror, so the result of this investigation is little more than a dead body in a bag (although some potentially useful intelligence is gathered as well).

Interestingly, we never see the corpse directly, only digital images of it, perhaps alluding to the controversy over whether the assassination ever actually took place.  Maya provides the identification, but is she reliable?  Clearly she has become obsessed, her commitment to locate her target consuming her completely while her colleagues are re-assigned or killed.  Her identification is all we have to go on, and the final shot of the film lingers on her face, as she breaks down and softly starts to weep.  Perhaps it is just relief, Maya allowing herself to feel the stress and let out the tension she has been holding for a decade.  Could it be anger at herself for not getting the job done sooner?  Or could it even be guilt at a deception she has perpetrated, because she was 100% certain Bin Laden was there, and the prospect of it not being him was just too much?

I am not a conspiracy theorist, so I think that the film does end with Bin Laden’s death and I interpret Maya’s tears as a release, as well as a device that neuters any sense of triumph.  But the ambiguity of the film’s conclusion maintains its refusal to moralise, portraying events rather than judging them.  We are aligned with Maya and her colleagues throughout the film, whether sitting uncomfortably close during meetings or looking over the shoulder of the attack team.  The grand narrative that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was supposed to recapture after 9/11 is not achieved, this is just one chapter in a post-human world of fragmentary data.  Even the confirmation of Bin Laden’s death is only shown through digital images, themselves a disassembly of objects into data.  This is another reason Zero Dark Thirty is no more an endorsement of torture than it is a criticism.  It is not an apology for torture, nor a valorisation of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and neither a criticism nor endorsement of the CIA.  It is a tale of absolute commitment to an ultimately pointless endeavour, that achieves nothing more than a release.  This is what makes the film disturbing: the business as usual that Zero Dark Thirty presents is a world bereft of grand narratives and meaningful events, a world in which what we do matters little, and what we achieve brings us neither success nor peace.




  1. […] far, I’ve only reviewed Zero Dark Thirty.  This was mainly due to the reactions the film had received as I expected they were incorrect and […]

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  3. […] in 2013, there was a tie for this award between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty. Both were favourite films of mine, and Arrival was my top film of last year. So maybe the pattern […]

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  5. […] Bigelow demonstrates her trademark immersive style, much as she did with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, often following characters with mobile tracking shots while many of the confrontation scenes are […]

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