Zero Dark Thirty

Bigelow, right, in sunglasses, directing Zero Dark Thirty

Although I hadn’t yet seen it when the Oscar nominations were recently announced, I was already miffed that Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t among those listed as Best Director contenders for her movie about the capture of Osama Bin Laden.  Here was the first woman director ever to win the award, in 2010, for The Hurt Locker, obviously being snubbed despite directing one of the most acclaimed, talked-about, Best Picture-nominated films of the year.

Now that I’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty, I’m even more perplexed by Bigelow’s absence from the list.  The film is a smart, richly nuanced, morally complicated cinematic version of a story from recent political history.  Bigelow’s vision, in concert with artistic partner Mark Boal’s eloquent script and Greig Fraser’s cinematography, makes the film the tense, suspenseful recitation of the events that culminated in Bin Laden’s assassination.  Zero Dark Thirty is also a fascinating, compelling glimpse into the workings of a government agency hell-bent on retribution with few resources with which to collect necessary information after the Obama administration ended the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that were ubiquitous under Cheney and Bush.

Some speculate that the political backlash against Bigelow’s film might have robbed her of the Oscar nomination.  The New York Times noted that the heat from Congress and the media, in fact, has prompted screenwriter Boal to retain a lawyer.  Bigelow made a smart, articulate public statement in which she argues that “depiction isn’t endorsement” when it comes to the representations of torture to which some politicians and critics have objected.

I wonder, too, had a man directed Zero Dark Thirty, if the film’s exacting scenes of coercion would be so controversial.  Impossible, of course, to know, but I find myself disquieted along with others who’ve pointed out that even Oliver Stone’s inquiries into the Kennedy assassination and other political debacles weren’t targeted with quite this level of cross, chastising congressional venom.

Maya, at headquarters

Bigelow’s defense of her film almost mirrors the gendered polarities faced by Zero Dark Thirty’s heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA operative who tenaciously follows an intelligence lead to Bin Laden’s hiding place in a compound outside of Abbottabad, Pakistan.  Maya is often the only woman on the scene, whether in the “black sites” where the CIA tortures its detainees or in the headquarters in Washington where various men in suits ignore her presence unless she speaks up.

Gandolfini as the Director

In an amusing but telling scene in which Maya is among a group of agents meeting with the CIA director for the first time about their intel, when Maya asserts herself, the director asks, “Who the hell are you?”  She retorts, “I’m the motherfucker who found him.”  The director—played by James Gandolfini wearing amusing makeup and a hair piece to make him look like his character—chuckles, his admiration for Maya quickly won.

Maya is the hinge on which much of the film’s moral and ethical debate swings.  In the much discussed opening scenes, she and a seasoned colleague, Dan (in a terrifically vital performance by Jason Clarke), question a Muslim detainee who’s been in custody long enough to already be a bloody, soiled wreck.  Dan sweetly cajoles and then cruelly wounds the poor man, repeating and enacting his mantra, “If you lie to me, I’ll hurt you.”  The poor man, Ammar (Reda Kateb), is water-boarded, beaten, and encased in a box not much bigger than a standard issue Fed Ex package when he refuses to provide information.

Bigelow’s camera carefully observes Chastain’s Maya endure her first torture session, as her face subtly registers her horror at the behavior in which her presence makes her complicit.  But when Dan leaves and she’s left alone with Ammar, she refuses the empathy the prisoner solicits.  “Your friend is an animal,” he groans.  Maya doesn’t touch him—she never inflicts physical pain—but she sides with Dan when she tells Ammar that his treatment won’t improve until he provides the information they need.

Bigelow refuses, in other words, to burden her film with a righteous or essentialist feminist critique of violence as only masculine.  Her film doesn’t condone torture.  She documents it as a fact of history.  She represents it and honors the real female CIA operative on whom Maya’s character is based by giving her a steely resolve and an unshakable determination to follow her intelligence until it leads her to Bin Laden.

Maya works for 10 years, across the history told by Zero Dark Thirty, barely lifting her gaze from her computer screen and rarely leaving Pakistan and Afghanistan.  She sacrifices everything for her work.

Jennifer Ehle, as Jessica

As FS2 remarked, the film includes no romantic attachments for its leading character, and even her friendship with her one female colleague, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), follows a more masculine model.  The two circle around one another warily at first, when Maya joins the team as an outsider/upstart.  But they grow to respect and admire one another, and Maya’s screensaver toward the film’s end depicts their finally warm relationship.  At one point, Jessica asks Maya if she has a boyfriend, but Maya demurs.

Maya’s focus on her job compromises her health and her happiness, but Bigelow and Boal paint her as a consummate professional with total devotion to her job and her mission.  In that, she becomes a 21st century feminist hero working in an agency still bound by 1950s gender assumptions.  But her intelligence and tenacity prevail.  Interesting, too, to see Chastain inhabit the lonely, isolated, singular hero shots typically reserved for men.

The lonely hero/ine

Chastain’s stark, pale white beauty helps make a character who could be remote—and in fact is, from many of her colleagues, though her camaraderie with others of them is nicely conveyed—interesting accessible and captivating.  Chastain’s cuts a willowy figure, and Bigelow and cinematographer Fraser often frame her curling red hair against swirling dun-colored desert dust.  But her beauty is slightly off-kilter; her eyes are round and large, and her lips are full and rectangular, which leaves the planes of her face to create a visual and emotional tension that makes Chastain more than a conventionally beautiful white woman.   And her emotional and intellectual acuity as a performer keeps you focused on her reactions.

Some of Bigelow’s choices seemed odd; for instance, I found it hard to believe that Maya would drive herself, alone, from her security-guarded domestic quarters to her work site, without even wearing a head-scarf in the semi-public space of her car.  In other public scenes, Maya wears an unexplained black wig or does cover her hair.  But the film never really clarifies the precarious place of a Western white woman in the patriarchal Middle Eastern culture in which Maya works for so long.

Always peering, searching

Maya has a close hold on her emotions, no doubt because of those agency gender politics.  When the Navy Seals who invade Bin Laden’s compound successfully assassinate him and bring his body back to their base in a bag, Bigelow and Boal allow the squad rather typical, macho male expressions of exultation.  Maya can’t afford such displays.  Her earlier delight in getting the green light for her long-awaited mission is subdued—Chastain portrays Maya’s excitement with a sharp intake of breath and by enlarging her already wide eyes.  Even as she watches the mission progress on her computer screen at the base, when she hears on her monitor that the Seals have got Bin Laden, Chastain plays Maya’s pleasure more as incredulity, mixed with a dawning, stunning realization that she’s achieved her goal.

The raid

When they return from their successful mission, Bigelow directs the Seals to park Bin Laden’s body bag on a cart at the back of the tent while they unpack the spoils they’ve retrieved from the compound.  She frames a shot of the cart left strangely by itself and unattended, considering the body it carries and the terror wreaked by the the man it once was.  When Maya approaches and unzips the bag, she looks at the corpse’s face and simply nods to a colleague, confirming its identity.

Bigelow and Boal downplay these moments of affirmation.  They never show Bin Laden’s face directly, making no attempt to have the actor and a make-up artist try to approximate his reality.  (Here’s terrific essay from the New York Times by the actor who played Bin Laden.)  The camera focuses on Maya and her reaction to the corpse—and on the Seals, when they invade his compound—keeping the focus on those who executed the raid, rather than inviting spectators to find prurient pleasure in what’s represented as an almost quotidian killing.

The Seals do their job, moving from floor to floor in the compound, killing two men and one of the women, corralling the many children in the house and falsely reassuring them that everything is okay.  When they reach the third floor and kill the third man, it’s only after he’s dead that the squad’s leader turns to the soldier who fired the shot and underlines the history he’s just made.

Picture of determination

No political celebration marks the film’s end.  Bigelow and Boal don’t cut to newspaper headlines or media reports or show scenes of gloating CIA operatives.  When the mission is over, Maya stands on an isolated runway alone, approaching a transport plane that arrives to retrieve her from Pakistan.  The eager young pilot says she must be very important, as she’s the only passenger on his manifest, giving her the whole, uncomfortable belly of the plane to herself.

As she buckles in and the plane takes off, Bigelow focuses in on her face, letting us watch, in one final take, as Maya lets her emotions well into choked sobs and tears that roll down her face.  In private, once she’s accomplished her mission, Bigelow implies that Maya can feel everything she’s repressed through the ten years of her quest.  In that final moment, Zero Dark Thirty shows its conscience, admitting that vengeance, too, has its costs.

A searing film like this, made by a woman about a woman’s single-minded quest to bring down one of history’s most reviled terrorists, deserves all the notice it gets.  And Kathryn Bigelow certainly deserved a Best Director nomination.

The Feminist Spectator

6 thoughts on “Zero Dark Thirty

  1. Thank you for this incisive review. I concur that the representation of torture in the film is handled with some sophistication. Critics contend that the film, with questionable grounding in facts, depicts torture in interrogation as a valuable tool in the effort to locate Osama Bin Laden (

    Like The Feminist Spectator, I reacted differently to the scenes of torture. Bigelow presents an ugly picture of “enhanced interrogation.” The inhumanity practiced by the film’s protagonists takes a toll on them, and a taste of that toll is transferred to the audience by the length of these scenes and the stark fashion in which they are filmed. Bigelow/Boal also include a scene in which Maya’s torturer colleague’s interaction with caged monkeys comments on the grisly and uncertain nature of torture techniques.

    Yet I believe there is plenty of ground on which to base a critique of this film. It is undeniably propaganda in service of US intelligence and military power. The inclusion of factual or quasi-factual material, and it solemn tone make it all the more effective.

    The length and unpleasant quality of the torture scenes is of a piece with Bigelow’s recent work, which includes long sequences that convey the monotony and arduous nature of intelligence and military work. In this context, the torture sequences can be read (perhaps mis-read, but nevertheless) as another unpleasant slog that the protagonists and spectators must go through to gain their reward. Compare, for example, the long sniper sequence in The Hurt Locker, or the long cell-phone hunt in Zero Dark Thirty.

    Secondly, while the filmmakers do make present the work as a documentary text, and make good faith efforts to remain faithful to that project, they also make choices that embellish a brutal and unpleasant story in order to make it more palatable. The casting of Jessica Chastain, a very appealing performer, in the lead role provides us with a sympathetic anchor point who personifies the drive to find Bin Laden. Chris Pratt, an adorable and talented comic actor, is cast as the face of Seal Team Six.

    These choices are easy to comprehend. Though Kathryn Bigelow has independent cinema bona fides, Zero Dark Thirty is a big budget film with significant distribution. I believe that the filmmakers endeavored to present facts and to leave judgments about the nature and usefulness of torture to the spectators. However, we should be wary of thinking of this film as documentary. In a sense, it is more effective in the service of imperial power precisely because it presents itself as dispassionate reportage.

    1. Thanks for this comment. I agree. It’s certainly not trying to present the “truth” of what happened, or even an alternative, let alone progressive, reading of the events. In that respect, it’s pretty interesting that Bigelow has been the butt of so much conservative criticism.

  2. I appreciate, as always, your insightful analysis and I am in complete agreement that Bigelow should not have been left off of the list of nominees for best director.

    I had one other thought I’d like to add to this discussion as regards the depiction of torture in this film. I am one of the queasiest spectators I know when it comes to any depiction of violence. I found it surprising, therefore, that I was not left with much of an emotional response, or even in deep contemplation about the interrogation techniques either when I left the theatre or in the aftermath of my reflection. I believe that this has a great deal to do with the fact that all of the depictions of torture that might hit me on a visceral level happen in the first quarter of the film. Certainly, the movie continues to question “enhanced” interrogation in an intellectual manner (when they mourn the loss of the ability to obtain vital information that way, for example), but I found these discussions short-lived and of minimal impact. On the one hand, I appreciate that Bigelow avoids allowing any sort of vicarious enjoyment (for those capable of it) of continual cruelty. On the other, I felt that this put a great deal of distance between myself and the real impact of these techniques. I was very able to simply sit back and enjoy the quest to find Bin Laden and vindicate our hero(ine) for the majority of the movie. The ending left me understanding that the journey had an emotional impact on Maya, but the source of this loss was unclear to me, and seemed more connected to the conclusion of her work/resulting emptiness or to the loss of friends in the war than to questioning the legitimacy of their techniques.

    Let me also say that I was thrilled to watch a woman in a very traditionally male role and one devoid of a romantic subplot. I was also happy to see that it was more nuanced than most of the movies out there on similar topics.

    1. Thanks for this smart comment. I agree with you that Bigelow and Boal work pretty hard to contain those scenes of terror and bracket them from the rest of the film and from the characters’ trajectories. I did find myself thinking how Dan, the torturer at the beginning, manages to live with himself when he’s back in DC, with his hair cut, his beard shaved, and dressed in a suit. But the scenes of him with his monkeys I know were meant to humanize him and demonstrated that the interrogations he lead were “just the job.” But there is a way in which emotions of any kind are withheld for so long, the experience itself winds up being a kind of remote experience. Intellectually, I thought the movie was quite good; emotionally, not so much, as I agree that even the horror of those first moments is left to recede to the background. Is that a moral, ethical, or aesthetic choice? I’m not sure. Thanks for engaging.

  3. Thanks to Susan Bernstein for sharing this link to Zillah Eisenstein’s smart op ed on Al Jazeera, in which she sharply critiques the film for its “revenge” politics. I take the point, and have begun to revise my view of the film. I still think it’s a mature work and the fact that it’s a film by a woman that’s prompted an important culture conversation is crucial. But these critiques of the film’s imperialist masculinist revenge ideology strike me as persuasive . . . . . . jd

  4. Dr. Dolan:

    Thank you for your review.
    Two points:
    1. I believe this movie is a technically well made picture. It also depicts skillfully the dehumanization of military/CIA operatives who work and kill for empire. At the end of the movie, in the cargo hold of the Hercules plane, what I saw was an utterly broken, desolate white woman, with no friends, nobody to confide in, and no goal in life except workaholism and revenge. She for me symbolizes the spiritual bankruptcy of American colonial empire.

    2. Your review somehow confuses feminism, whiteness and imperialism. The film is a sustained depiction of the “imperial gaze” – the white men (and a few white women) have the utmost powers of surveillance and their fingers on the trigger, targeting what seems as brown-hued natives. The people with Arabic names are portrayed generally as weird and exotic, or as terrorists, or as victims. There are use of racial epithets in the movie. Like Dr. Eisenstein I believe that Maya is no feminist at all. She is really an embodiment of neoliberal imperial feminism, a position similar (if given cinematic hyperbole) to the one taken by Condi Rice and Hilary Clinton.

    Your admiration for Maya’s character is misplaced. Her character seems anti-feminist – no genuine relationships, no ethics of care, no striving for an ideal, but instead an almost caricatured aggressive, violent, and emotionally repressed entity whose main emotional output is hate. I don’t know why you would admire such a character. Her comment of “mother fucker” is telling. Does that mean she wants to be one of the boys?

    In sum, this is a convoluted movie. It gives an imperialistic gaze and yet also a critique of imperialism. Chan Wai Tak

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