Kathryn Bigelow explored the realm of warfare, and its risks to life, limb, and psyche, in “The Hurt Locker,” the 2009 film that made her the first woman to receive an Oscar for Best Director. Bigelow now returns to the arena of war with “Zero Dark Thirty,” which tells another side of the same war, the so-called “War on Terror”: the decade-long hunt to locate and kill Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks around the world.
The film starts off with a black screen and the sounds of people in the World Trade Center making their last phone calls, some to 911. As a prelude to a less driving or authentic film, this would feel cheap and manipulative. But a few minutes into “Zero Dark Thirty,” as we meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), the female CIA analyst whose determination and single-minded focus pays off with bin Laden’s death in 2011, that black screen and those voices haunt us the way 9/11, and subsequent terror attacks, haunts Maya.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal delve into one of the most controversial aspects of the War on Terror from the very start, depicting a suspect being tortured by an American operative named Dan (Jason Clark). “When you lie,” Dan tells the subject of his interrogation (Reda Kateb), “I hurt you.” Watching Dan in action, Maya at first seems about to offer some glint of sympathy —— only to prove as hard as nails.
The question some viewers might have is this: What about when the lies are what terror suspects think their torturers want to hear? Do those lies also result in punishment? Do truths deemed undesirable or insignificant fall by the wayside? And what, in an all-out war fought like a police procedural, is insignificant?
It’s by dint of the tiniest details, meticulously uncovered and matched, that Maya closes the noose around bin Laden’s neck. As a warrior whose weapons are facts and intuition, Maya’s prowess grows and develops scene by scene and beat by beat. Even as others start to slack off or look in other directions, Maya stays on point and on target; in the end, it’s her will and her confidence that secures action against the target and wins over the trust of the seal team that take down the world’s deadliest terror mastermind.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is flawlessly directed, shot, and edited. Its controversial departure from history (suggesting that waterboarding yielded vital intelligence when known sources on record say that torture did not provide useful information) has generated a fair amount of tutting, to which Bigelow and Boal have responded that this is not a documentary but rather a feature film, and thus open to a degree of artistic license.
To be fair, the gruesome physical and psychological torments Bigelow forces us to observe give weight to the serious ethical problem of fighting any war through torture. How reliable is the guy who breaks under duress? How much is he likely to know? What about the guy who doesn’t break, but responds with disinformation? The specter of Abu Ghraib hovers over one or two scenes, but it’s treated like a nuisance by those who, for political or ideological reasons, don’t care to examine the issues it involves.
With Maya, Bigelow cuts a path right through the center of the tumult and confusion. Maya has few friends, and not much of a life. She’s not a caricature, but she is a ball of fury: Angered by what she sees as a superior’s lack of commitment, she scrawls a running count, day by day, on his office window of time passing with no result. When her job is done and bin Laden’s body is in a bag, Maya finally allows herself to have some emotional response other than anger. (To a lesser degree, following a personal loss, she retreats into what might be a passing bout with despair or doubt; come the next break in the case, though, she’s right back on her game.)
We’re told from the first time we meet her that Maya is “a killer,” and she lives up to that reputation. Like Jeremy Renner’s character William James in “The Hurt Locker,” Maya is phenomenally effective in the extreme, rarefied world of the war she’s fighting. What would she be like in a peaceful setting? We don’t ever find out. When we followed William James home, we learned that peacetime was, for him, unbearable: The satisfactions of husband and father fell far short of the adrenaline rush of disarming terrorist bombs.
Both films pose a question to our culture, which still resonates with the explosions that leveled skyscrapers and destroyed four commercial airplanes eleven years ago. What will it take to win this new kind of warfare? And to what extent do we dare allow ourselves to be shaped and defined by conflict this intense and pervasive?
These questions are worth pondering. Meantime, don’t be surprised if “Zero Dark Thirty” does for Bigelow and Boal what “The Hurt Locker” did at the Oscars in 2010 and scores them the trifecta of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.