For all the talk about torture Zero Dark Thirty
has generated, you’d be forgiven for thinking director Kathryn Bigelow spends 157 minutes depicting detainees being waterboarded, strung up with ropes and crammed into confinement boxes. This is, of course, not the case. The majority of the film is an intricate police procedural about the decadelong hunt for Osama bin Laden, with a 30-minute climax depicting the assault on his Abbottabad compound. But those scenes of torture, front-loaded in the first third of the film, dredge up such challenging, uncomfortable and important moral questions it’s no wonder they’ve dominated discussion since before Zero Dark Thirty
was released. Yet I’m unable to see the film as some rah-rah, kill-the-motherfucker piece of jingoism that pines for the days when detainees wore dog collars. Instead, it’s as uncomfortable in its relentlessly raw representations of torture as it is in its characters’ emotionally ambiguous reactions—or nonreactions—to those acts of torture. Take the first scene of torture: CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) has just arrived in Pakistan and is present for the violent interrogation of a detainee named Ammar. Maya cringes, clenches her jaw, clasps her arms across her chest and at one point covers her eyes. But there’s an unsettling slightness to these reactions. The torture is terrible and sad in its brutality; Maya’s reactions are terrible and sad in their faintness. Where Maya shows no faintness is in her single-minded drive to root out bin Laden, which Chastain fiercely portrays. Her determination, as we know, pays off, and Zero Dark Thirty
builds to the pivotal raid on bin Laden’s compound by a group of Navy SEALs. Largely shot with night-vision lenses, it’s a dramatic shift from earlier cinematographic naturalism, but it remains eerily and grippingly real. The suspense is thick, the carnage plentiful, and the celebration brief and fraught—this is no simple act of triumphalism. Much like the film’s earlier depictions of torture, it’s wrenchingly decisive yet, ultimately, inconclusive.