Zero Dark Thirty is a very difficult film to review. Hell, it was a hard movie to watch. That it is high art is not the point of contention. That it solidifies Kathryn Bigelow’s position as one of the best directors on the scene today is also not the argument. What is important is that it is a fictionalized retelling of a non-fiction event that collides with history and fact . . . and our values. And how we define and uphold those values.
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is an almost zombie-like CIA analyst who wants to hunt down Osama bin Laden. She isn’t motivated by bloodlust or ambition. She operates only out of a sense of duty. This is her job, and no one will outdo her at her assignment.
She watches stone-faced as suspected terrorists are tortured in front of her; she doesn’t wince or blink when the men begin producing information that she believes may or may not be true. History tells us that the torture techniques known as “enhanced interrogation” produced mostly false confessions and convoluted intelligence. Zero Dark Thirty says that may be true, but that it also helped us capture and execute bin Laden. Do piles and piles of human waste produce golden nuggets?
Maya gets the golden nugget she is looking for, and finds herself on the path to bin Laden in Pakistan. The movie then spends the rest of its second half dramatizing with superb tension the capture and murder of bin Laden.
Many are up in arms at the fact that the Bigelow seems to imply that intelligence elicited via torture was helpful in uncovering bin Laden’s whereabouts. It is important to remember that this is fictionalized account of what really happened. It is also equally (if not more important) to remember that torture – no matter what its justification – is antithetical to humane values in the modern world.
Pause. Or is it?
If Bigelow’s dramatized account of what happened to bin Laden becomes a definitive piece of dogma in the nation’s continued quest to grapple with its enemies, it may be time to wonder if the pursuit of our enemies has any other purpose than to simply make us into what we despise most.
And if so, is there a fate more cruel than that?