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.
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.