Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Shortly after Zero Dark Thirty, the feature film about the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, opened last December, The New York Film Critics Circle and Boston Society of Film Critics voted it best picture of the year. It was nominated for five Oscars, and director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have been greeted with standing ovations everywhere they go. In an added gloss, critics applauded the film—with its female director, protagonist (Jessica Chastain), producer (Megan Ellison), and distributor (Amy Pascal)—for closing the Hollywood gender gap.
But the winds of public opinion soon shifted. At the premiere in Washington, D.C., a dozen protesters in orange prison jumpsuits and black ski masks carried placards denouncing the film’s portrayal of torture. They portended the outraged condemnation that followed from many politicians, journalists, lawyers, and academics who have spoken out against America’s use of torture.
Opponents charged that the film suggested the efficacy of torture, a major flash point in the political debate about the practice during the Bush administration. Among the first to express his ire was Senator John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, torture victim, and vocal critic of the Bush administration’s hard-liners who sanctioned what they called “harsh interrogation techniques.” McCain said the film made him sick and that the filmmakers got it wrong by suggesting that torture had garnered useful information in finding the man who led investigators to Bin Laden. Like other critics on the left, Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, feared that the film would vindicate the persistent view—held by about half of Americans, along with former Vice President Dick Cheney and his neoconservative followers—that torture is justified and useful in saving lives. In a letter to the film’s distributor, she worried that Zero Dark Thirty might “shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.” In summarizing the findings of her committee, whose 6,000-page report is still classified, she denied that the CIA learned about Bin Laden’s location from “detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.”
But critics’ complaints go beyond the issue of torture’s efficacy. They are largely in agreement that, whether productive of useful intelligence or not, torture is immoral, illegal, and depraved, and many have argued that Cheney’s staff and the Justice Department lawyers who authorized enhanced interrogation techniques are guilty of war crimes. The film reawakened the bitter political debate that opponents of torture thought they had won through legislation and the election of President Obama. And in their view it normalizes acceptance of American war crimes.
Zero Dark Thirty will no doubt go down in history as one of the most controversial films ever made. Yet no one can seriously believe that Bigelow and Boal intended to make a film that vindicated war crimes or validated torture. How did they get into this mess?
Reviewing the film for the New Yorker, David Denby identified part of the problem: the filmmakers “want to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction.” Indeed their claim to accuracy marks the first frames of the film, which bear the legend “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.”
Everyone involved with Zero Dark Thirty stresses its authenticity. Boal, an investigative journalist turned screenwriter, has proudly described his months of research and consultations with CIA operatives. Bigelow testified to the visual authenticity of the film. Her team went through a video of the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad frame by frame to construct an identical copy, down to the floor tiles. In interviews, Chastain, the film’s lead actress, eagerly recounts the three months she spent hanging out with CIA personnel to understand how they work and how they live. The film’s mysterious title, military jargon for 12:30 am, speaks to that same project of authenticity.
But faced with the critics’ attacks, Bigelow and Boal have backed off, calling the film “a movie not a documentary,” “a first draft of history.” “A depiction,” they say, “is not an endorsement.” Boal seems particularly rattled by the idea that a Senate Committee was investigating the film and reviewing his access to the CIA. Boal has sought to clarify the kind of authenticity Zero Dark Thirty intended to convey, conceding that he transformed his research on “firsthand accounts of actual events” into a feature film screenplay. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Steven Coll made much of that transformation in a blistering indictment of the film. He, like other critics, vented concerns beyond the film’s overreaching journalistic claim and factual errors. He expressed deep moral objection to the filmmakers’ artistic conception and aspirations in dealing with 9/11 and the decade that followed. Implying that they were in way over their heads, he wrote that the film “appropriates as drama what remains the most undigested trauma in American national life during the last several decades.”
But even if one shares Coll’s outrage at the portrayal of torture, is not turning undigested trauma into drama the essence of art? That is what Nietzsche tells us in the Birth of Tragedy. Zero Dark Thirty may have failed in that ambition, but surely Bigelow and Boal were right to try. And many will conclude that they succeeded.
Zero Dark Thirty is divided into two stylistically distinct parts. Many critics described the first two-thirds—the CIA’s interrogations and investigative efforts to locate Bin Laden—as a procedural thriller. The last third takes an action-cinema approach to the elite SEAL Team Six’s raid on the Abbottabad compound. Neither part of the film is accurate or truthful in the sense of being veridical.
Bigelow and Boal made their CIA agent Maya the heart and soul of their film after learning that a woman operative had been important to the success of the manhunt. Bigelow, who believes casting decisions are among a director’s most important, chose Chastain for the character. A red-headed beauty with a creamy complexion, Chastain conveys feminine innocence and vulnerability on the screen. One can only believe that Bigelow cast her because she did not fit the stereotype of a hard-nosed CIA operative obsessed with her mission. Chastain’s beauty, vulnerability, and determination produce an instant empathic response in the audience, and her performance will no doubt augment her rising career.
The film does not vindicate torture. It describes a chapter in the degradation of our nation.
Yet a CIA spokesperson reports that Maya’s character is quite misleading, that the manhunt was very much a group effort, not a one-woman crusade. And Matt Bissonnette, the SEAL team member who wrote a book about the Abbottabad raid under the pseudonym of Mark Owen, has revealed enough to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty puts a heroic gloss on a mission that nearly spun out of control and came close to disaster.
If the film is not aiming for historical accuracy, then what is its moral compass? The answer may be found in Bigelow and Boal’s first collaboration, The Hurt Locker (2009), a film that earned both of them Oscars and made Bigelow the first woman to win Best Director. Zero Dark Thirty was made out of the same creative DNA.
In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s cinematic aesthetic is gritty realism, a view from the war-torn streets of Baghdad. Her hero, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), is an unglamorized everyman, with no psychological backstory, whose only focus is defusing improvised explosive devices. Bigelow places her lens on the here and now of his project, so we feel we are witnesses, almost participating in his work. The experience she creates is emotionally authentic; I am sure that in an MRI the fear circuits of our brains would be lighting up. Bigelow, who began her career as a serious conceptual artist, surely considers the audience part of her cinematic conception. Boal adds journalistic authenticity to The Hurt Locker: he was an embedded journalist with a bomb-defusing squad. Together they capture and distill a microcosm of the Iraq War and let the audience reach their own conclusions.
Bigelow and Boal put the same aesthetic to work in Zero Dark Thirty: gritty realism, with the audience as embedded witness. We are thrown in from the start, one step behind the march of the narrative, trying to figure out what is happening. The protagonist has no backstory, and it all goes straight to our emotional brain. It succeeds as cinema. But this time a different kind of story is being told.
After the unfortunate legend of “based on firsthand accounts,” the screen goes dark and we hear a babble of voices. It takes a few moments to realize that these are taped calls from the Twin Towers on 9/11, the desperate screams of people who died that day. One voice becomes clear: a woman begging for help. After the emergency operator gives her false reassurances that help is on the way, the woman cries, “I am burning up.” We know she will die a horrible death along with hundreds of other innocent people, all victims of al Qaeda.
As we are assimilating that thought, the black screen suddenly lights up, and we are watching an al Qaeda detainee being tortured by a CIA operative who dominates, threatens, and taunts him. Other agents wear black ski masks. The torturer, Dan (Jason Clarke), his face bare, is shown doing everything the CIA has been accused of. The detainee is strung up in the position of a man being crucified, the archetypal torture. One agent, a woman, establishes that this detainee will never be freed and that she can therefore remove her mask and be seen by him without risk to herself. As it comes off we see the striking Chastain as Maya. For a moment she winces at the torture, but then she steels herself and is into the drill, a determined part of the team. The detainee begs for help, and she replies that if he wants to help himself, he should tell the truth. Bigelow wants us to identify with Maya (we are told that the CIA recruited her out of high school) and makes us complicit in the torture. Maya is not yet so cruel as to be off-putting, and Dan somehow conveys that he is not a sadist; torture is his job, and he knows it is destroying his humanity.
Dan and Maya believe the detainee Ammar (a composite of three actual detainees, played by Reda Kateb) can tell them about a terrorist attack that is about to happen in Saudi Arabia. But waterboarding him, forcing him to crawl naked with a dog collar, locking him in a small wooden box, depriving him of sleep, subjecting him to sensory overload, and starving him all have no effect. We see a terrorist attack take place in Saudi Arabia with innocent civilians slaughtered. The torture has not worked.
Maya, eager to prove her value to Dan and the CIA, suggests that they lie to Ammar, who has no idea what is going on in the outside world and whose short term memory has been impaired by the ordeal of torture. Over food and drink and apparently believing he has betrayed his al Qaeda friends in Saudi Arabia, Ammar gives them the alias of the courier who is the link to Bin Laden. The name does not lead to the right person, but it gives Maya the unshakable conviction that the courier is the key to finding Bin Laden. She also becomes convinced that Bin Laden is not hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. She spends the years that follow pressing for resources to track him down in Abbottabad, Pakistan as more terrorist attacks take their toll and the CIA’s desperation grows. Bigelow’s vivid images—of a hotel in Islamabad, a bus in London—make us witnesses to history.
Bigelow may well have seen herself in Maya’s character. The CIA environment is dominated by men who condescend to her. She has to fight to be heard and taken seriously. That dynamic also allows us to sustain our identification with her throughout the first part of the film. We see her interrogating a detainee and instructing a ski-masked assistant to punch him when he is uncooperative. She believes in brutality. At this moment we should come to our moral senses, but we do not. And the tension remains high as suicide bombers kill her colleagues and come close to killing Maya herself.
A different kind of drama unfolds as Maya’s efforts pay off, and the CIA closes in on the courier and Bin Laden’s compound. Will the male operatives take the credit? Will they even give her a place at the table? At a meeting with Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), she is shunted to a seat in the back of the room. Panetta asks her who she is. Her answer, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place.” One wants to cheer for Maya; her cause is so just, and Chastain’s performance is so perfect. One forgets that this heroine tortures and that one is cheering on a war criminal who repeatedly violates the Geneva Conventions. Here is the moral transgression of the film: its aesthetic engages our sympathy instead of shocking our conscience.
Ironically the clue that leads to Bin Laden has been sitting in a file for years. A young woman who admires Maya’s dedication and emulates her diligence identifies the courier through a systematic search of old files. Chastain has emphasized this fact in interviews, pointing out that torture did not lead directly to Bin Laden in the film. Yet Zero Dark Thirty tells a story about a CIA operative and her colleagues who believe, as CIA officials of that era still believe, that torture is justified and effective.
Does this film, then, vindicate torture? No. Think of it instead as an allegory in which Maya stands for America. The opening 9/11 calls and the torture establish the theme: revenge. Pursuing it, Maya, the innocent and vulnerable, degrades herself. Zero Dark Thirty thus describes a chapter in the degradation of our nation.
In the last fifteen minutes of the film, handheld cameras and the green light of night vision goggles reveal the SEAL team raid on Bin Laden’s compound. Like the rest of the film, it is emotionally authentic, and one experiences it as a witness. That is Bigelow’s genius at work.
Maya, who has sent the SEALS off on their mission, greets them on their return. She gets the credit she deserves. In the last scene, as in The Hurt Locker, a huge military transport dominates the screen. Maya is the only occupant, and the attendant says, “You must be important, where do you want to go?” Maya is silent; she has no destination, and tears run down her cheeks. Revenge is neither victory nor fulfillment. She has lost her way and some of her humanity, and so has America.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.