Magazine | February 11, 2013, Issue

9/11 Aftermath

A review of Zero Dark Thirty

I came out of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting procedural about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, thinking that it was the best movie of 2012, but upon further reflection I’m not sure I’m qualified to tell you that. What’s more, I’m not sure that any other contemporary American is really qualified to judge it either. Criticism depends, to some extent at least, on distance: You wouldn’t trust a man to dispassionately review a book about his wife, or a celebrity intellectual to deliver a clinical, clear-eyed assessment of a New Yorker profile of himself. And Zero Dark Thirty is designed — brilliantly designed — to collapse the distance between its audience and its protagonist, between anyone who lived through 9/11 and the story that it tells about what came afterward.

That collapse starts with the opening scene, which is just recordings, and the memories they summon up: bursts of static, overmatched 911 operators, and the terrified voices of people choking, burning, dying inside the Twin Towers eleven years ago. Then we meet Maya, played by the gaunt and beautiful Jessica Chastain: a young CIA agent, new to the field, who’s sent to Pakistan in 2004 to work on the bin Laden hunt because her bosses have decided she’s a “killer.” And then we get the hunt itself: two and a half hours with Maya as she sits through interrogations, trawls through intelligence, follows leads that go nowhere, conducts interrogations herself, loses friends to suicide bombers, and then eventually — eventually — finds her years of effort and obsession vindicated by a mysterious white compound in Abbottabad.

And that’s all we get. The recordings and our memories, Maya, her hunt, and nothing else. If you’re expecting to get to know her backstory, don’t: We know no more about where she came from at the end of the movie than we did at the beginning. If you’re looking for subplots, look somewhere else: The movie’s fine supporting cast exists only in relation to the driven protagonist — providing assistance, throwing up impediments, or suffering fates that cement her motivation. If you’re interested in the political context, you’ll find it only when some major world event impinges directly on her efforts. (The Iraq War, for instance, comes into play only when the memory of the WMD fiasco becomes an obstacle to persuading the higher-ups to gamble on her non-slam-dunk intelligence.) If you’re looking for big ideas and sweeping arguments, you’ll be completely disappointed: The endless debates, strategic and moral, that have raged since 9/11 don’t interest Maya at all. She just has a job to do.

#page#That job includes observing and participating in her agency’s interrogation program, in which the movie immerses us for about the first 40 minutes of its running time. This means dog collars, boxes, chains, nudity, pulsing music, and, yes, the waterboard. Eventually, one of these interrogations produces a scrap of information — plucked not during the torture itself, but during the period of disorientation that follows — that sets Maya on the long, long path to finding bin Laden’s courier, and with the courier the arch-terrorist himself.

Critics of the movie’s politics have mostly focused on that scrap of information, arguing that nothing so crucial actually emerged from the “enhanced” sessions, and accusing Bigelow of stacking the deck in favor of techniques whose brutality no viewer of this film could possibly deny.

I agree that there’s a sense in which she stacks the deck, but I think the details of which piece of information emerged from which interrogation session are almost incidental to that process. If Zero Dark Thirty is implicitly pro-waterboarding, it’s not because it delivers a careful brief for the practical effectiveness of everything the CIA tried in black sites and interrogation rooms. It’s because Bigelow doesn’t give us any perspective except Maya’s, or show us any path except the one that she and her fellow agents took. Within the context of the movie, there is no real vantage point from which to be “anti” any one of her specific choices. The quest for bin Laden is a world unto itself, and to judge one part is to pass judgment on the whole.

Since Bigelow doesn’t shy away from showing some of the darkest aspects of what Dick Cheney famously called “the dark side,” her film doesn’t entirely preclude that kind of sweeping, it-wasn’t-worth-the-cost judgment. But it doesn’t exactly invite it either. If you come into Zero Dark Thirty convinced that going to the dark side was necessary and even admirable, the movie may well strengthen that conviction. And if you come in — as I did — with serious qualms about what the United States government did to captured terrorists, Bigelow’s film invites a kind of moral fatalism. If you want vengeance, it implies, this is how it works. If you want the catharsis, you have to accept the price. If you identify with Maya, then you probably would have done exactly what she did.

The aesthetic merits of Zero Dark Thirty ultimately depend on whether this fatalism is serious or shallow, an insight or a cop-out. But I am American, I lived through 9/11, I wanted vengeance and catharsis, and my identification with Maya was absolute. So while I unreservedly recommend the movie, I’m the wrong person to answer that all-important question — and so, most likely, are you.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

The Small Presidency

Action is something Americans of both parties demand of their presidents these days. This is natural for Democrats, whose heritage is all action, starting with Franklin Roosevelt and his Hundred ...

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

A Man Standing

On November 10, 1975, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism a form of racism. After the vote, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. ambassador ...
Politics & Policy

Old School

The most recent ancestors that humanity shares with chimpanzees and bonobos died about 6 million years ago. For almost all of our existence, we humans have lived in small hunter-gatherer ...
Politics & Policy

Medium, Not Rare

The tale of the whistleblower generally follows a predictable arc. There is the dreadful misbehavior, and the whistleblower’s shamefaced confession of his part in it. The whistle blows. The wrongdoing ...
Politics & Policy

9/11 Aftermath

I came out of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting procedural about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, thinking that it was the best movie of 2012, but upon further ...
Politics & Policy

La Petite Guerre

During the decade after the first Gulf War, many national-security experts concluded that emerging technologies, especially information technologies, had created a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that would fundamentally change ...

Sections

Athwart

Inaugural Exegesis

Now that the president has laid out his agenda in broad, sweeping strokes — basically, solar-powered wedding chapels for gay marriages — we can get down to the business of ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

Last Night If one sits on the steps of Sacré Coeur      to see the city after dusk, one sees, too, in the cold, each traveler:    the silk-scarved men, distinct with musk;  the ladies ...
Happy Warrior

Every Man a Criminal

For Chris Matthews, the sob-sister sap who hosts MSNBC’s hilariously misnamed Hardball, President Obama’s inaugural address bore comparison to Lincoln at Gettysburg. Whether>Lincoln would have felt the same is doubtful. ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

Bailout Facts Mark Calabria’s “An End to Bailouts” (January 28) contains some interesting points, but it also contains a number of errors that substantially weaken the reliability of Mr. Calabria’s advice: 1.) ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ We wouldn’t be surprised if they lip-synched the oath of office, too. ‐ House Republican leaders have announced that they will raise the debt ceiling enough to let the federal ...

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More