The reactions to Zero Dark Thirty serve to illustrate Vivian Sobchack’s point: the meaning of a film has just as much to do with what you bring into it as what it gives to you. Though critically praised overall, and nominated for an Academy Award, voices on the political right and left decried the film, albeit for different reasons. The critique from the right was obviously defensive, claiming that the movie was historically inaccurate and a misrepresentation of fact, that torture was not employed to gather information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. On the left, the film was campaigned against for perceived collusion with the US government and for ultimately justifying and bolstering the torture regime of the Bush administration.
My personal encounter with the film yielded no such reactions, though there are elements of the film that support such reactions. Again, what is inside is only what you take with you.
Zero Dark Thirty is neither a historically inaccurate lie nor vile propaganda; it is a filmic rendering of a specific time and place. Though it may be inaccurate at points, it truthfully portrays the spirit of that time and place. The film’s scope is both broad and intimate, following the female CIA agent who pursued bin Laden with Ahab-like zeal for just over ten years. It contains graphic scenes of torture; the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan serves as its concluding set-piece. It can also be taken in several ways.
The fact that it may or may not be historically accurate is beside the point. Though the specific incidents of torture and enhanced interrogation may have never occurred, it is irrefutable fact that similar events did occur and were used to gather information. The fact that the political right decries this is a testament to how truly damning these policies were and are as far as the American national character is concerned. The Republicans, and Democrats for that matter, are absolutely thrilled that “we got him” in the end, but the road taken to that end has left an indelible mark on US history.
As far as accusations of propaganda are concerned, there is only mild evidence to support them. Yes, Kathryn Bigelow and the screenwriter Mark Boal were given access to Defense Department files while researching for their film. The stamp of approval from the US government is undeniable. Aesthetically, the film completely resists being propaganda. The first clue is the opening: a black screen with the caption “September 11, 2001” while the radio chatter of fire fighters and police officers and newscasts serves as the soundtrack. If Zero Dark Thirty truly was propaganda, we would have been subjected to an unrelenting, ten minute montage of people hurtling themselves from the towers’ windows, the towers collapsing, and people fleeing the dust cloud. We are only given an impression of that day. Our memories are meant to fill in the rest.
Further, US nationalism and ideology are never at the forefront. Throughout the film, we only see people doing their jobs. The protagonist, Maya, never mentions 9/11 or an abstract “America” as her motivation. She is a consummate professional, utterly dedicated to the task at hand, her coworkers, and not much outside of that.
The most damning critique of the left, championed by Constitutional lawyer and columnist Glenn Greenwald and philosopher Slavoj Zizek, is that the film justifies the use of torture and celebrates American military supremacy. A close viewing reveals that these accusations are tenuous at best. It is true that the characters within the film believe torture is effective, but the narrative itself shows torture to be ultimately useless. After being subjugated to multiple scenes of waterboarding and interrogation, the piece of information that ultimately leads to the bin Laden compound is found in a pile of intelligence released by the Turkish government shortly after 9/11, and that was not sifted through until almost 10 years later. Further, the torture scenes themselves are far from triumphant. We do not see heroic Jack Bauer-esque super agents doing what needs to be done to save the day in the nick of time, but cold professionals subjecting other human beings to abject cruelty. Bigelow’s camera actually humanizes those tortured; their pain is not a spectacle, it is shown as the horror it truly is.
Even further, the climactic closing sequence, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, is, again, not the triumphant “rah rah, America!” spectacle some critics have portrayed it as. Bigelow’s depiction of the Navy SEALs who conducted the raid is not one of stoic warriors who defend America’s people at all costs, they are the asshole jocks you went to high school with, and demons who swoop in silently in the night to kill mothers and fathers and terrify children. The soldiers move ghost-like through the Pakistani night air, their forms more robotic and insect-like with their body armor and four-eyed night vision goggles than anything resembling a human. They promise safety, but only bring death. Again, in what is to be the climax, a truly cathartic moment for us, the children of 9/11, completely resists any pretension to propaganda. Bin Laden’s death is not rendered in the exploitative slow-motion of so many second-rate Peckinpah rip-offs. He is one body amongst the many in that compound. We, the audience, glimpse his face second-hand, a not-quite clear image on the viewer of a digital camera as a soldier snaps photographs. Catharsis denied.
Zero Dark Thirty is an important film. It serves as a poignant post-mortem of the first decade of the 21st century. It does not conjure a spirit of American triumphalism, but one of uncertainty. The film ends with Maya onboard a military plane bound for nowhere, her job done, her friends who had died in her quest avenged, she breaks down, the final shot lingers on her face as she weeps. It is not catharsis, it is the crushing anxiety of not knowing where to go next.
The great villain of our time has been slain. What now?