Don’t trust the audience members.
Trusting them appears to be the cardinal sin of Zero Dark Thirty, a masterful, absorbing film dramatizing the CIA's 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. It has been at the center of controversy for its depiction of U.S. intelligence agents using “enhanced interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture.
Some, including Republican Sen. John McCain, accuse director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who last collaborated on The Hurt Locker, of falsely suggesting that intel gleaned through torture is what led the CIA to bin Laden.
The controversy is at a fever pitch. Is ZDT a nearly journalistic work? Is it morally repugnant propaganda?
Mostly, it is a work of resolute, perhaps maddening, ambivalence. Opening Friday, ZDT details a remarkable manhunt in which horrific things occurred, but our reactions to what unfolds on-screen are far from clear-cut.
The approach is evident in the opening minutes, with an aural collage of real-life emergency scanner traffic and cellphone calls from Sept. 11, 2001. That sonic assault is abruptly followed by a scene, two years later, in which an al-Qaida detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb, A Prophet) is subjected to brutal torture at the hands of a CIA operative (Jason Clarke, Lawless) who looks more like a coffeehouse barista than a sadist.
It is worth noting that the movie is much more than the uproar now surrounding it. Our protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain, The Help), tirelessly works to track down a mystery man, known as Abu Ahmed, whom she believes is bin Laden’s favorite courier. The search stretches from military bases in Afghanistan to secret prisons in Europe, from a Lamborghini dealership in Kuwait and, finally, to a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the Navy SEAL Team 6 operation that killed bin Laden.
With painstakingly created suspense disguised by a naturalistic, almost documentarian feel, the film is a dazzling CIA procedural. The narrative is smart and engrossing, and it builds to a third act, the May 2011 killing of bin Laden, that is gripping in spite of our knowing how things will end.
Chastain is tremendous as the single-minded agent. Her Maya is tough, driven and seemingly without a personal life. “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job,” she tells a colleague in the wake of another terrorist attack. ZDT has assembled a strong cast throughout — particularly Clarke, Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) and Mark Strong (John Carter) — but it hinges on Chastain’s credibility. And she delivers.
Still, the question remains: Does the film condone torture? Does it condemn it? Is it even accurate? This is more than a matter of mere academics. Truth in art does matter, especially if history is twisted to support morally dicey propositions. Birth of a Nation, anyone?
But the answers are shrouded by an ambiguity that amounts to a sort of Rorschach test for moviegoers. Ammar (whom Bigelow and Boal say is a composite) reveals a critical piece of information, the name of bin Laden’s courier, after he has been worn down by torture. But the name he gives up is an alias; Abu Ahmad’s real identity, as ZDT points out, is uncovered through channels that don’t involve U.S. interrogation.
In the end, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t scrutinize the morality of what happened — or the effectiveness or necessity of torture, for that matter. But torture by U.S. personnel, like the succession of al-Qaida terrorist attacks that followed 9/11, is part of the historical record. The film chronicles — expertly, thrillingly, profoundly — these events.