“Zero Dark Thirty,” opening in Buffalo today, isn’t merely the most important film of 2012, it’s unique. No other American film that I know of does quite what this one does. But then, so is 9/11 unique in our history, as well as the subsequent mission to search out and destroy Osama bin Laden.
That’s because we cannot watch this brilliant and harrowing thriller from our customary moral high ground. The movie won’t let you. Its very skill at absorbing you into the search for bin Laden eliminates that moral high ground where we’re all so very, very comfortable – you know, the one where we know how much difference there is between us and what our government is routinely doing in our name.
Well, not this time. We’re in this film from its opening seconds, when documentary snatches of real telephone conversations from the World Trade Center on 9/11 are heard over a black screen. We, in our theater seats, are perhaps the film’s most important character.
That’s not the way some people are telling it, of course. I wish I were one of them. I wish I could say that I watched the horrific scenes of “enhanced” Bush-era interrogation (waterboarding included) at “black sites” and wanted the film stopped right then and there.
But I didn’t. I don’t think you will, either. From then on, you and this extraordinarily absorbing and exciting film are in it together.
That’s why there has been such a large and organized push-back from Washington. The Obama administration, for one, wants to separate the successful hunt to kill the man responsible for 9/11 from the previous administration’s interrogation techniques. Liberal senators raced to go on record loudly deploring those scenes in director Kathryn Bigelow’s film.
Remember that when this film was being made, there was some outrage at the apparent coziness of the Obama administration with the filmmakers – that far too much information had been made available to Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal. (Bigelow and Boal’s previous film together, “The Hurt Locker,” won the Best Picture Oscar that “Zero Dark Thirty” was also nominated for).
“The Hurt Locker” was a great film. “Zero Dark Thirty” is that, as well as a great moment in film history, because of what it does.
It’s the fact-based (but decidedly fictional) story of a CIA analyst who was integral to the hunt for bin Laden. She’s played by Jessica Chastain. We see her across a decade of search – at first being told by a CIA superior (played with menacingly cool professionalism by Jason Clarke) that she needn’t be in the same room while he waterboards a suspect for information. It’s almost his way of telling her “You needn’t bother your pretty little head with all this filthy man’s work.”
She won’t play along. She stays in the room, silently shocked and disapproving, but fully a part of it. And that’s the moment where the audience becomes complicit. She is our heroine, our surrogate. We cannot, as we do, root for her as avidly as we do for the next 2ø hours and remain spotless.
Later, she makes it clear how much more effective she thinks it is to properly analyze the information they do get than to try to elicit more by torture, both physical and psychological (a la Abu Ghraib). It is there that the film proves to be so much smarter, I think, than some of its Washington critics, who think they can bury deep moral questions under the usual political noisemaking. You can’t.
The movie’s implicit question for us all from the first is, “Listen, did you want the SOB dead or didn’t you? Here’s a fact-based fictionalization of how we did it.”
The film’s two hours and 37 minutes don’t feel like two hours and 37 minutes. It’s not a short film, to be sure, and it doesn’t feel like one, but nor does it feel like a long one. It’s a thriller in which you’re with it every step of the way as the analyst uses gathered information and works methodically (and with no small luck) toward that moment when she finds, through the actions of bin Laden’s “most trusted courier” that he’s in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that’s larger than any other house in the area. And then in the film’s final half-hour, we watch the Navy SEAL raid – with their three-scope night-vision goggles making them look like extraterrestrials and their bullets pumped into female compound inhabitants for reasons at best ambiguous, if not completely gratuitous. Even there, at that extraordinary end we knew was coming, this movie won’t let you be comfortable in the moral superiority that other films are so careful to preserve.
While the movie is unique, it is not without precedent in the highest reaches of American film. The classic American movie I couldn’t forget while watching it is John Ford’s “The Searchers,” in which John Wayne sets out to find the niece who was kidnapped when very young by the Comanche Indians who wantonly slaughtered the rest of his family.
It’s an amazing Ford Western – beautiful to look at but containing a moment of breathtaking cruelty when Wayne, our cinematic symbol of American virtue, shoots the eyes of an already dead Comanche because “according to what HE believes,” it will condemn him to eternal homeless wandering in his version of the afterlife. So deep is Ethan Edwards’ racist hatred for his family’s slaughterers that he’ll gladly defile a corpse according to its tribal religious beliefs.
That’s Ford, American ultra-patriot, asking us in our theater seats, “You want to know how the West was ‘won’? Well, that was one way.”
That’s close to what Bigelow is doing in “Zero Dark Thirty,” and it puts her in some of the greatest American film company, whether she would like it or not.
It is through the analytical efforts of Chastain, though – a living symbol of haunted intelligence in what we call “the intelligence community” – that those SEALs are able to do the job that almost all their countrymen so dearly wanted done.
It may have been justice, but the audience is unlikely to care. It is certainly revenge, just as was Ethan Edwards’ gratuitous defilement of a Comanche corpse.
At the end of the epic search of “The Searchers,” Ethan’s now-teenage niece Debbie has been safely returned to white America after living as a Comanche. A great director has gone into the ugly racist heart of American expansion and come out human again, as Ethan Edwards’ cruel Western world is vanishing.
At the end of “Zero Dark Thirty,” we wonder if ours is only beginning.
It is a great film belonging in the highest – and most disturbing – company.
Zero Dark Thirty
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Running time: 157 minutes
Rating: R for wartime violence, language and brutal, disturbing images, including torture.
The lowdown: Acclaimed film in which a female CIA analyst emerges as the key figure in America’s 10-year hunt to find Osama bin Laden.