Director Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker after a career of making worse-to-middling action pictures, is a visionary of the grubby. In that 2009 Iraq war movie, and in her new one about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, sand and dirt and grime and mold and mildew and puddles become characters as vivid as, if not more vivid than, the humans. Bigelow anthropomorphizes grubbiness—investing it with menace, or despair, or sadness, or pathos, or rage, or whatever the scene calls for.
This is a real directorial achievement, and I say that without a trace of irony. As she enters her sixties, Bigelow has become a major filmmaker by finding both her true subject and its proper visual analogue. Bigelow and Mark Boal, who wrote the screenplays for both war movies, portray the collision of the United States with parts of the world that look and feel alien—and operate under different premises from the ones Americans share.
The Bigelow-Boal films offer a portrait of the United States at war with enemies we struggle to understand, and in places we struggle to get a sense of. In one stunning sequence in Zero Dark Thirty, a U.S. surveillance team begins its search for a suspect in a crowded market in Pakistan. Bigelow pulls back the camera to show thousands of people teeming in the marketplace, while three Americans search for a single person whose face and name and car and profession they do not know. Their anxiety becomes our anxiety.
In this respect, those attacking Zero Dark Thirty for its dispassionate portrait of harsh interrogation techniques used in the search for bin Laden are right to be offended by the movie. Bigelow’s depiction of the “otherness” of Muslim countries functions, dramatically, as a ready excuse for American actions of which the film’s attackers disapprove. They want to see the American characters who engage in harsh interrogations punished on screen for their sins, shown to be losing their souls, tormented by the evil they’ve done. Bigelow and Boal do not do this. Instead, the American operative they show waterboarding a midlevel al Qaeda detainee—which, by the way, did not happen in actuality, as only three very senior terrorists were waterboarded—does not suffer a pang of conscience, or a moment of lost sleep (though he does say later he’s seen one too many naked men). What’s more, he’s by far the most attractive character in the movie. Played by an unknown Australian named Jason Clarke, he makes as indelible an impression as the then-unknown Jeremy Renner did as the lead in The Hurt Locker.
In a telling turn of phrase, Michael Hastings of BuzzFeed (the man whose Rolling Stone article gleefully destroyed the career of the great public servant Stanley McChrystal) writes: “The film makes a mockery of all those who protested America’s regime of secret prisons and abuse.” In other words, he chiefly despises Zero Dark Thirty because it fails to pay appropriate respect to him, and to Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, and others whose denunciations seem largely based on wounded amour-propre.
This is not to say the movie is a flag-waving World War II tribute to the guys and gals who got bin Laden. Indeed, it’s so thick with a mood of ambiguity, like The Hurt Locker before it, that it’s impossible to derive any clear message from it. Zero Dark Thirty is largely a character study of a pensive young CIA analyst named Maya who spends nearly a decade tracking bin Laden. We see most of what happens through her eyes, but we have no idea what is going on inside her head, or who she is, or where she comes from, or what makes her tick. Maya is glum and determined and guarded and friendless, full of pent-up emotion and played by just about the most gorgeous actress now in cinema—Jessica Chastain—but that’s really about it. Her opacity mirrors the opacity of the movie as a whole.
Maya’s dogged pursuit of a single lead—a courier named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti—turns out to be the key to finding bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad. The movie offers a rare depiction of the blind alleyways, false approaches, and hapless incompetencies that bedevil all government investigations, and in so doing, provides a bracing corrective to the ludicrous spy-movie portraits of the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful CIA. It’s a government outfit like any other, with good bureaucrats and bad bureaucrats, dedicated employees and sluff-offs. The riveting depiction of the SEAL Team Six raid on the bin Laden compound shows just how easily everything could have gone horrifyingly wrong.