In defending her masterwork, Zero Dark Thirty, at an event in Washington this week, Kathryn Bigelow spoke of wanting to detail the “complexities” and “ambiguities” of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Her screenwriter, Mark Boal, argued that the director gets grief because she operates from a “subjective” point of view, rather than an “omniscient one.”
But the second principle isn’t always in service to the first, especially in this case. And that goes to the heart of why so many people are having so much trouble with Bigelow’s film, to the point where one attendee in D.C. termed the work “despicable.”
Subjectivity, by its very nature, omits the wide-angle view. It’s like trying to watch a football game from the perspective of the tight end. At times, you wouldn’t know who was even winning or losing. Bigelow’s film never pulls back and lets you see, as an offensive coordinator would, the entire field. The actor Chris Pratt, who plays a Navy Seal in the movie, said Bigelow told him she wanted to create a “boots-on-the-ground” experience, and that’s precisely what she did—and it’s why she’s getting hammered.
As a filmmaker, Bigelow has always trafficked in the visceral. She likes getting close to the flame. So when she begins Zero Dark Thirty (slight spoilers ahead) with the sounds of emergency calls during 9/11, it’s evident right away that she is not interested in establishing a sober account or approaching her material from a distance, like, for example, the stately, safe, and universally adored Lincoln. The opening sequence is designed to make us feel, literally in the case of one screaming woman, the searing pain of the victims.
That way, when Bigelow smash-cuts to a scene of the torture of a detainee, we’re already compromised, already in the shoes of the CIA agents tasked with eliciting information to prevent another attack. What we witness is savage, but in a sense, we instantly understand why. It’s for reasons such as these that the composition of a film is so often referred to as grammar. Absent the predicate of 9/11, the viewer’s experience would be radically altered. The torture would seem arbitrary and the sympathies would align accordingly.
Instead, the film lingers in the gray. Sequences of brutality pile upon one another, to the point where even the least squeamish become uncomfortable and America’s moral choices are crystallized. Yet, Bigelow intercuts them with scenes from other terrorist attacks: in Saudi Arabia, in London. Why? To help us understand the furtive desperation of the CIA, which then allows us to stay loyal to their cause? Or is it to convince us that all the “enhanced interrogation” in the world did nothing to prevent those attacks and these agents' efforts are futile and criminal? Bigelow doesn’t connect those dots for us.
In fact, much of what the director does subverts our expectations. By casting the willowy, awkwardly beautiful Jessica Chastain as the movie’s protagonist, she has set us up from the start. A lifetime of moviegoing has conditioned us to expect Chastain’s character, Maya, to be the voice of reason, to act as a moderating influence on the more extreme elements in the agency. If anything, however, Bigelow takes the character in a darker direction, forcing us to address the juxtaposition between her magazine-cover looks and her worrisome actions. She isn’t the hero as much as someone swallowed whole by the muck of her job.
(To me, an even more subversive act was casting Kyle Chandler, best known as Coach Taylor from the beloved high-school football TV drama Friday Night Lights, as a CIA station chief. Few actors today embody gauzy, old-fashioned American values as Chandler. To see him in this light is jarring.)
Bigelow never abandons her subjective approach throughout the film, so that when the CIA finally gets a line on bin Laden’s whereabouts and we hear an agency official complain about President Obama “shutting down the detainee program,” there is no straight-outta-Sorkin countervailing character to upbraid him about his failings and educate him on the dubious value of such a program.
And it’s here where Bigelow can’t be let completely off the hook. While she and screenwriter Boal are right when they say that the film itself doesn’t take a position with respect to torture, its protagonists clearly believe in its value right up the point where bin Laden is killed. And since the film, despite what its detractors insist, refuses to draw a straight line from torture to critical intelligence, the viewer alone must supply the necessary context to fill in the blanks. Bigelow seems to have faith that we will. Others aren’t so sure. So, to return to Bigelow’s own defense, she grades well on ambiguity, not so much on complexity.
Still, to her credit, her commitment to the boots-on-the-ground approach extends to what could be the most melodramatic aspect of the film, the final raid on the Abbottabad house. None of it is staged in action-movie clichés, and the Navy Seals, while shown to be brave and competent, are not portrayed as square-jawed paragons of military training. At times, they are both cocky and callous—and without giving too much away, much of the sequence alternates between sick-stomach tension and distressing episodes of collateral damage in which the shared element among hunters and quarry is fear. The ending, as such, provides little in terms of relief or catharsis.
By compressing 10 years into two and a half hours, starting with the fall of the Twin Towers and ending with a lone figure in a body bag, Bigelow forces the viewer to confront the extremity of actions taken in pursuit of the world’s most wanted man in a manner that a hundred, just-the-facts documentaries could not. And while critics maintain that Bigelow has stacked the deck, that the telescopic nature of the story conflates torture and the end result in a way that endorses its use, it’s not that clear-cut. There are plenty of dead ends, missteps, and other kinds of intelligence-gathering along the way. Throughout it all, Bigelow shows fealty not so much to the historical record as to her commitment to the way the story should be told, which, like it or not, is the mark of the artist. (This is a woman, by the way, who once made a film whose lead character is named Johnny Utah, so you might expect some heightened reality.)
Most important—in her unflinching willingness to make us, as viewers, feel every ounce of the pain inflicted on the detainees, every sting of the lash, so to speak—she makes all of us accomplices in the act. The first time around, when it happened for real, most of us were given a pass. That’s why Zero Dark Thirty is important and that’s why it shouldn’t be missed. The film isn’t about chronicling the hunt for bin Laden (or, for that matter, about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the policies of the George W. Bush administration). It’s about the way our national choices, expressed through our elected government, make us feel as citizens, and about our concepts of justice, security, and yes, revenge. Unlike most politicians and pundits, Bigelow refuses to reduce those concepts to abstractions. And we’re better for it.