I would like to start this discussion by saying that Zero Dark Thirty is not a torture movie. It should not be discussed as the torture movie. Hostel and The Human Centipede are torture movies. Twilight is a torture movie. Zero Dark Thirty is so much more than torture.
Katheryn Bigelow returns to the setting of her previous masterpiece The Hurt Locker. While that movie mined the emotional impact that war can have on the soldiers Zero Dark Thirty looks at the CIA agents and the intelligence gathering that happens before the soldiers are sent in. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, an agent that was recruited young and her only job has been to locate the most well known terrorist in human history- Osama Bin Laden.
The movie takes place over a twelve year span and during Maya’s search we see her go from relative innocence to someone who wonders how much of her soul her ambition was worth. This story is well known to nearly everyone and will elicit an emotional response in most if not all of the audience. I wonder how this movie will play to the next generation of movie watchers who may only know about Bin Laden from history textbooks and stories from their grandparents. Will it make any sense to them? Will the emotional weight of the film be intact? Katheryn Bigelow takes great pains not to sensationalize the events of 9/11, which I believe to be right for the movie, however, this may be to the detriment of future generations’ enjoyment.
The plot from screenwriter Mark Boal is straightforward and leaves out much of the fluff that lesser movies would include. By stripping away the superfluous the script remains taut and tense for nearly the entire running time. The raid scene finale in particular shines under these terms. There is nothing pulling the audience away from the action and the action itself is honest. There are no Michael Bay explosions to be found. In my opinion the military has never looked as good and heroic as they do here. Which brings us to the elephant in the room that seems to have overtaken the conversation of this film. Was the military’s use of torture responsible for the killing of Osama Bin Laden?
Zero Dark Thirty portrays Maya’s dogged resilience to follow a clue that was obtained under duress. Detractors of the film point to this fact as implicitly approving of torture as an interrogation technique. They also use this fact as a reason that the movie should not be seen or endorsed. While they may or may not be right on the first point they are shamefully wrong on the second. This movie almost NEEDS to be seen. The raid sequences in particular lay in stark detail the unexpected consequences and possible cataclysmic repercussions that can emerge from the event that was touted as an unequivocal success. Torture’s use can be argued for its merits or lack thereof, but this movie would have been dishonest and probably discarded as meaningless had it not portrayed the events as they happened.
Katheryn Bigelow has again masterfully crafted a film that gives us a glimpse behind the facade of the modern military. This is an important film which was made under uncertain circumstances. It asks questions that often go unasked. How well are our resources being used? Is there any hope in a war on terror? How badly can a bureaucracy impede an investigation and can it effectively be a detriment to progress? What are the costs to our souls? Do the ends justify the means? The most haunting image from Zero Dark Thirty comes very near the end. Bin Laden has been shot and the soldiers are carrying his body out in a body bag. Looking on are all of the children that were living in that house. The camera rests on that image for merely a second, but that is enough time to force the audience to dwell on what that mission might mean for the future. Did that raid on the Bin Laden compound create a new generation of terrorists? That question weighs heavily on both the characters and the audience.