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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Zero Dark Thirty is tense, tight, and deep into the uncertainties and risks of intelligence work in a post-9/11, terror-ridden world. Indeed, the film’s exploration begins and ends with that fact: that our world is terror-ridden and, given that, what does it take to protect ordinary citizens by impairing terror networks. This scope is enough to embody several serious and important questions. The film does not — and need not — ask how the world became terror-ridden; that’s a question for another film. Still, it is good for viewers to keep this broader question in mind for (at least) two reasons: It helps one to avoid criticizing the film for things that it is not trying to do, and it helps one to place the film’s exploration in the context of a larger conversation about terrorism and international relations.

Maya was young when she went to work for the CIA about two years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Her main project during the time she’s been there: learning the ways of Osama bin Laden and tracking him down. She’s smart as a whip, even using terrorists’ lies to figure out the truth. Using the tools of her trade — including “enhanced interrogation techniques” (or torture, take your pick) — she picks up on an interesting trail of observation and logic, which she relentlessly and doggedly pursues. Yet as hard as it is to piece together the evidence and form a narrative about a terrorist’s whereabouts and responsibilities, in the vagaries of international espionage and covert operations, there’s still a fair distance between forming a narrative and taking action based on it. Running time: 157 min.

With its behind-the-scenes look at fighting terrorism through espionage, Zero Dark Thirty takes us to a world of intricate questions about war, justice, and protecting average citizens. The film’s actual scope of exploration sticks closely to the personalities, actions, and trail of evidence leading to bin Laden, yet still the questions seem to burst beyond this narrow scope. Within the film’s range are questions such as: What costs and what methods are justified in tracking down the leaders of terrorist groups? How do personalities and careers get mixed with supposedly professional, unemotional decisions about intelligence priorities? How do optimism, confidence, and bravado work both for and against intelligence work and its goals of protecting a country's citizens? What is it like to be in the middle of a special forces night raid? Is it reasonable to think such a raid could be completed without mistake? What does it say about us if we want it to be a straight-up kill mission (instead of capture-or-kill)? All-in-all, I came away with an increased respect for the work of international espionage.

From its opening ode to 9/11 through to its final moment, the filmcraft in Zero Dark Thirty is outstanding. The film's action centers more in office buildings than in the field (though there's substantial field action), yet its pacing moves it quickly and its plot keeps tension consistently high. The film's handling of the torture issue is forthright but not strident (some may find it strident, but I think, at most, it is only that certain characters might be so, not the film itself). Director Kathryn Bigelow guided her team well, creating a cohesive and compelling portrayal of an ugly but real aspect of today's world. Alexandre Desplat's music, as usual, is lightly but very effectively played. Most all the acting is quite good, especially Jessica Chastain's lead as Maya.

Zero Dark Thirty is most definitely worth the time, however it is important to understand the scope of the film in relation to the broader issues that surround it. I suggest that, after seeing it, viewers reflect first on what it would be like to be in Maya's shoes, in some sense bearing responsibility for lives unknown that might be saved through her work. After that, if you're up for it, move on to the larger questions that the film is not aiming to address.

The broader questions beyond the scope of Zero Dark Thirty

Normally, my "before viewing" remarks about a film would end here. In Zero Dark Thirty's case, I find it important to consider the broader questions around it, especially because of certain thinly thought but compelling-on-the-surface critiques of the film.

Exiting the film's exploration, and going to the questions that spring beyond its scope, ZDT can prompt substantial reflection: Are there scenarios for and forms of enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) that are valid and morally acceptable? Should terrorism be treated as warfare, as criminal activity, or as warfare that may validly use the tools and processes of criminal justice? Has handling of Israeli-Palestinian issues by world powers avoidably encouraged Islamist terror? How may historical mistakes of any kind have fostered or exacerbated the rise of Islamist terror? What moral responsibility does the broader, peaceful Muslim community have in (not for) the war on terror? But the greatest of these questions, as touched on by the film, is the EIT question.

It is easy to find Internet commentators who believe that the film, having touched on EIT, was obligated to take a substantial detour through the debate around EIT's legality, limits, and appropriateness. I disagree. While I believe these are questions worthy of filmic exploration, ZDT's filmmakers take a reasonable artistic decision to stick to the perspectives of their CIA protagonists — let other films explore other angles into the issue. For its part, ZDT's characters have their points of view, the film is about their work, it is not (in itself) a political film, and an EIT detour would be extraneous.

Perhaps due to their particular bias, many of ZDT's EIT critics stridently conclude that the film portrays EIT as a necessary part in the war on terror (e.g., "no EIT, no bin Laden"). I find this to be a hasty, ill-considered conclusion. Although the film may overemphasize the centrality of one EIT-sourced data point (for which reliable sources say it was first learned from a non-EIT source), this does not mean that there have been zero critical data points obtained solely through EIT and, if there are any such data points, ZDT's portrayal would be true to EIT's possible role in the characters' world. Furthermore, the film does makes it clear (1) that multiple sources of evidence are needed, and (2) that interrogators must assume that EIT-sourced information may not be reliable and must factor this into the overall process (as indeed the film portrays). The critics, moreover, claim the film is at odds with scientific facts about EIT's efficacy, quoting well-known sources who state that EIT does not work (e.g., senator John McCain, himself a victim of torture). However, there seems to not be any such scientific consensus (see the endnotes to this section of a Wikipedia article).

If we can get past bias on EIT, we might get to where the real questions about it begin. While honor demands that the USA (and other countries) respect international law, there is no clear, universally agreed line where strong persuasion ends and torture begins. The phrase "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental" is the UN's technical definition, but what are the morally acceptable interpretations of "severe" versus "extremely uncomfortable" or "highly undesirable"? Does EIT somehow make future attacks on citizens more likely? EIT's efficacy cannot be wholly judged on whether individuals reveal the truth, because cross-checking is part of the process and even lies can lead to the truth. So how will we judge efficacy? Certainly more research and analysis is needed. What if there were a definitive bit of data that we obtained only through EIT? What if it saved lives? Would we then say that it would have been better to sacrifice potentially thousands of average citizens in the name of kind treatment of a combatant? How accountable are low-level terrorist operatives and, since history strongly suggests that their associates intend further harm to average citizens, which pain would trump the other: their EIT pain or citizens' pain and death without EIT? If your loved ones were hostages in the hands of known, volatile, merciless killers, and it were your decision whether to pursue their rescue via EIT with the killers' associates, what would you choose?

Don't get me wrong as I pose these questions: Don't think that I am pro-EIT. I merely recognize that, in this broken world, sometimes we are faced with decisions that truly are between one evil and another. It is irresponsible to promulgate strident opinions based on anecdotal cases and simple, casual analysis that does not consider these types of questions and the depth of nuance required to get to a strong answer. Actually, if either side of the debate would be served well by anecdotal cases, it would be the pro-EIT side: one demonstrated case of saved lives says much (but not everything).

The scenes of interrogation are intense emotionally and visually, and they include some very brief nudity (not direct or full, no lingering nude shots). Multiple terrorist attacks are depicted. Scenes include attacks via bombs and automatic rifles, some at close range. Language is strong.

  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Screenplay: Mark Boal
  • Leads: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
  • Cinematography: Greig Fraser
  • Music: Alexandre Desplat

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