Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’: nearly as evasive as its subject

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'Zero Dark Thirty' is out now. (Sony Pictures)
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“Is this real world or an exercise?”

The now-famous request for clarification, from an F-16 pilot ordered to scramble to the sky on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, is there in the confused and anguished collage of voices that opens Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s elusive, radically episodic account of the events that led to the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.

The voices belong to real people, most of whom, we now know and some of them suspected at the time, were about to be silenced forever. The effect, as the recordings play for two minutes against a black screen, is one of crushing panic. In the screening I attended anger soon clenched the room; women clucked in displeasure and men gave weary sighs. This better not be a trick, we thought, or just another pseudo-action picture using sacred means for “gritty realist” ends. This better be good.

Perhaps evoking anger is what Bigelow and her screenwriting collaborator Mark Boal (the pair’s last film, the fervently, bafflingly esteemed Hurt Locker, won them both Oscars) had in mind. I’m still not sure. The two have been sticking to their blandly evasive story of intent: the idea, they say, was to mingle journalism and entertainment, revealing recent, largely classified events to a vested public in neutral, experiential terms. But where its sympathies aren’t obvious, Zero Dark Thirty’s pretense of a strict, presentational style is undermined by the subject matter, so that context, subtext, and sequence swell to fill the film’s meticulous gaps in character, meaning, and moral perspective.

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It’s no accident, for instance, that we move from the recording of a woman pleading for her life in the burning towers to a scene, set two years later, of a Saudi man being tortured at a C.I.A. “black site.” The suggestion is one of cause and effect, perhaps even tit for tat. But the filmmakers afford themselves a retreat behind their “just the facts, sort of” stance, pushing the moral onus of the scene back onto the audience. Does it feel good to see someone suffer now? Does it make sense? The images, of course, speak for themselves. What they depict is not neutral, and reenacting intimate, historically and otherwise charged violations on film without a clear narrative perspective risks reducing them to pure sensation.

Auditing one of the two early torture scenes is the young C.I.A. “targeter” who becomes our escort through the 10 years of failures and lurches forward that lead to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. Her name is Maya (Jessica Chastain, action-hero opaque), and Bigelow gives her a Blonde Venus Does Black Ops kind of entrance. Covered, like her fellow agents, in head-to-toe black, as Maya peels off her balaclava a strawberry braid tumbles forth like a lotus in the desert.

“Washington says she’s a killer,” the field director (Kyle Chandler) tells a fellow agent named Dan (Jason Clarke), a hoo-ah type who mocks Maya’s big-girl pantsuit. Dan is at the center of the “enhanced interrogation” sequences, where along with detailed and pointedly repulsive depictions of torture, we suffer Boal’s awkwardly inflamed dialogue. “This is what defeat looks like, bro,” Dan gloats to his freshly waterboarded prisoner Ammar (Reda Kateb), identified as the nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. “Your jihad is over.”

Well, not quite, as the next datelined event suggests. A year has passed and al-Qaeda has made another successful attack, on Saudi Arabia’s Khobar compound. It also turns out that torture proves a less successful interrogation tactic than some well-timed smokes and tabouli, served with a side of psychological gamesmanship. Ammar gives up the vaguely identifying nom de guerre of bin Laden’s courier over a groaning table, but the search for the trusted aide’s full name continues.

Time passes in the form of more dates already grimly imprinted in memory: July 5, 2005, the London bombings; and Sept. 20, 2008, when a truck bomb was detonated in front of the Islamabad Marriott, where Maya and her colleague Jessica (warmly played by Jennifer Ehle) happen to be dining at the time of the attack. Maya remains convinced that the courier is the key; Dan, more concerned with not being “the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” puts in for a transfer back home.

It’s a rare and jarring moment of acknowledgment. On the subject of torture even the agents, including Maya, display little agency. They are shown merely following orders: if you say torture they torture; say stop and they’ll stop, though a wistful reference to the bad old days might occasionally slip out. In one curious scene the agents are shown silently watching television as a newly elected President Obama vows that America does and will not torture. It’s one of many moments where the real world and this entertainment exercise are pointedly intertwined, and the latter comes up short.

In that room and others, Maya, our escort through woefully interesting times, is blankest of all. During a recent interview, Charlie Rose twice flummoxed Bigelow with queries about her central character: Is Maya lonely? What kind of person spends 10 years searching for an international villain? Bigelow, attempting a tease, says we’d have to watch the movie to find out.

Depicted as a jobbing agent for the first half of the movie, Maya’s first real statement of intent comes after the 2009 suicide bombing of a C.I.A. outpost in Afghanistan. “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op,” she vows, “and then I’m going to kill bin Laden.” As in most action movies, things speed up once the mission gets personal, and Maya shifts from cipher to holy fanatic. Her rare utterances turn mystical: “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”

By this point Zero Dark Thirty has abandoned a dateline structure in favor of illustrative subsections with titles including “Tradecraft” and “The Canaries.” The former details the tracking of the courier, whose full name, it turns out, has been known but lost in a C.I.A. intel matrix for years. The latter is the main event, the execution we’ve all been waiting for, itself a brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed reenactment of the May 1, 2011 raid. The sequence holds the kind of galvanizing, clarifying power—it literally lights up, if barely, the awful thing we do and don’t want to see—that the rest of this uneasy blend of action procedural and public service attempts more obliquely.

Predictably, Bigelow is at her best when she’s on a mission, blowing something up, or about to blow something up. The devastating Khost bombing, the tracking sequence, and the raid in particular catch Zero Dark Thirty up in pure, procedural bliss. And Bigelow remains enamored of insider frisson, from the title and other military shorthand (helicopter = “hee-lo”) to her introduction of Seal Team Six, depicted here as a collection of extravagantly skilled chuckleheads in playoff beards (Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton among them), at an Area 51 air base. Framed as extensions of the movie’s true heroine, it’s the Seals who inject much-needed human energy into a task that’s clinical by design, perhaps necessity.

If she resisted analyzing her heroine, in her “Charlie Rose” interview Bigelow was more comfortable confirming that killing bin Laden (the working title for the film) was “kind of the story of a lifetime,” full of inherent drama, so good in fact that even a rhesus monkey, to paraphrase John Goodman’s Argo producer, couldn’t fuck it up. Rose and Boal shook their heads: the good lady had slipped them again; some girls just can’t take a compliment.

But even good stories don’t tell themselves, especially not if they aim to be great. Watching her wriggle free from the story of a lifetime’s every formal and narrative constraint confirms Kathryn Bigelow as some kind of escape artist. Leaving Zero Dark Thirty, neither documentary nor pure genre, journalism nor entertainment, real world nor an exercise, and which ends with a whiskery glimpse of our generation’s greatest escape artist, that was all I knew or felt for sure.