'Zero Dark Thirty': Mesmerizing, intelligent, difficult
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a Rorschach test disguised as a geopolitical thriller. The new movie from the filmmaking team of screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, who were behind the multi-Oscar-winning Iraq War nail-biter "The Hurt Locker," could be seen as a sort of companion piece to the 2009 film. It tells, in a temporally staggered fashion (some of its episodes are separated by years), the story of the hunt for and the eventual killing of Osama, or Usama, bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who conceived and ordered the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. I note the alternate spelling of "Osama" because throughout the picture the object of the hunt is referred to as "UBL," and there's nobody there to hand-hold you as to what that means because you're kind of expected to know.
Knowing and not knowing are two of the most crucial themes of the movie. Its main character, given the name Maya by Boal and Bigelow (and apparently based on a covert CIA operative dubbed Jen in the recent book "No Easy Day," about the raid that netted the bin Laden kill), knows that the capture or elimination of bin Laden is an absolutely crucial action. She and other agents base their various decisions on pieces of data, which, combined in a certain way, convince them that they in fact "know" something. "In other words, you want it to be true," one character dryly notes of another's conclusions midway through the film, hoping to achieve a deflation. Sometimes the actions taken based on what is "known" to be "true" yield a tragic result. Actually, if you look at it a certain way, the result is always tragic. The profound sleight-of-hand of this movie is that while moving as if it is telling you things, it's in fact always asking questions.
It does this from the very first moments. The movie opens with a title, "September 11, 2001" and then a black screen and an audio track from a (we assume) real-life 911 call whose cutoff we all know means death. And here there's a question of taste, and whether the movie will earn the right to use this aural documentary within its fictional re-creation of subsequent events. The unease continues in a scene in which Dan (Jason Clarke), a burly, bearded CIA interrogator, leads newly in-country operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) into a hellish hut where a captured al-Qaida operative steels his weakened self in anticipation of the beating he knows he's about to get. Watching Dan torture the fellow (Dan's refrain is "You lie to me, and I hurt you"), Maya, who we are to understand as a sort of audience surrogate, cowers just a bit at the sight of what's going on. She's gonna stop this, right? She's the hero, torture is wrong, she's gonna stop it and she's gonna teach this other knucklehead the right way to get information, right?
Well, no. At one point, the detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), looks at Maya somewhat plaintively and, cold as ice, she tells him, "You can help yourself by being truthful." (And there's that word!) Soon a little carrot is alternated with stick, and Ammar does give up a kernel of information that proves very useful. If you've read other reviews of the film or some ruminations by various representatives of the op-ed punditocracy, you know that this depiction has got the undergarments of several persons in a bunch, who blather that the movie puts a stamp of approval on activities that run counter to American values. Oh my. One such pundit has gone so far as to blather, "I'm betting Dick Cheney will love" the movie, because, wow, how awful will that be?
In fact, "Zero Dark Thirty" is up to something entirely more profoundly unsettling than even what the people who "worry" that it is "pro-torture" might intuit. The movie does not privilege any of the ideologies that perpetuate either jihadist rhetoric or bromides about United States values. Instead, it depicts events, meticulously, with great cinematic virtuosity that is nonetheless careful not to show its hand, such as it is. And it throws all of these events, as seemingly contradictory as they might seem in what they "say," into your lap. Its occasional use of title cards for individual episodes deliberately belies the idea of total objectivity (these terse titles are dryly sardonic and near-literary in their irony), an admission that such a thing is impossible. That the movie achieves its highly cerebral aim while still "working" as a suspenseful fact-based procedural is what carries it into the realm of great cinema.
As terrific as "The Hurt Locker" was, "Zero Dark Thirty" makes that film look like a dress rehearsal for this. Anchored by a magnificent, sometimes shocking performance by Chastain, who leads a largely fantastic cast (Jennifer Ehle, playing a semi-friendly agency rival, gives one of a dozen or more other superb performances), the movie has a sweep and a scope that's enormous but never grandiose. Not a single shot is devoted to "oh, look at this far-flung location" throat-clearing or nudging; every second of film counts. As disturbing as it often is to watch, it's so rife with sheer cinematic material that it's likely to reward multiple viewings.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.