Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
The new Kathryn Bigelow film Zero Dark Thirty, which explores the manhunt and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden in a compound in Pakistan in 2011, has been criticised in some quarters as a piece of unthinking American triumphalism that seeks to justify torture and other violence. I don’t understand these criticisms.
I suggest that the exact opposite is true, in that this movie unflinchingly exposes the reality of what the hunt for bin Laden, and what eventually took place in that Abbottabad compound at zero dark thirty on 2 May 2011 has caused America to become.
The overwhelming message that I took away from this excellent film is that America has lost its way and has now become the very thing that it has sought to eradicate in its war on terror: a vengeful entity driven by the misguided belief that the end justifies the means, and that violence and war will bring order to the world.
Yes, Zero Dark Thirty does feature scenes of torture, but these scenes most definitely do not glamorise such unethical acts; far from it. The opening sequences actually confront America (probably for the first time on such a scale) with the reality of how human beings are treated during the process that is now colloquially referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
These opening scenes of the film are technically crafted in such a way as to elicit viewer sympathy for the detainee, and not those carrying out the torture. What many people watching this film seemed to have missed is the powerful symbolism in the actions of the lead character Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, during those first few scenes.
Maya is quite clearly meant to represent post-9/11 America. She is driven by an overwhelming obsession to see Osama bin Laden hunted down and punished, and this desire is all consuming, to extent of defining who she is. At one point in the film she is asked by the director of the CIA what else she has done apart from working to catch Osama bin Laden since joining the security agency. She stridently replies, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.”
During those first few scenes of torture, Maya is initially troubled by what she sees, but then she quickly agrees to go along with these unethical actions because of the impatience that her blind obsession to get revenge for 911 has created within her.
Maya is America, and America is Maya.
Ultimately, this sacrificing of American principles, which begins with violent acts of torture justified in the name of ending terrorism, ends with an even more violent and unethical act – the assassination of mostly unknown targets. These include at least one woman during a raid on a compound when it was far from certain that their desired target was even present there in the first place.
And let’s not forget that, prior to the raid on the compound in Pakistan, Maya tells the US special forces troops that they are being used because “if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser” – no one, that is, except for the families of all those people who would have been secretly murdered by the US in an horrific case of mistaken identity.
It is the final raid sequence which sees Bigelow confronting the moviegoer with some of her strongest challenges, albeit with a deft subtlety, as to the ethical nature of what took place in that compound in Pakistan.
Firstly, we have the killing of a woman whose only known “crime” was being present in the same house as an international terrorist and rushing to the body of her husband immediately after he had been gunned down by US troops.
Then we have the point blank shooting of targets who haven’t even been properly identified before they are killed, and who seemingly pose no immediate lethal threat to the US soldiers carrying out the mission. To drive home the point that these shootings are not simply acts of self-defense, Bigelow shows us the US soldiers shooting extra rounds into victims, including the woman, already lying dead on the floor.
Make no mistake about it: she is subtly confronting America with the fact that this was a mission to kill, a revenge mission, and not an attempt to capture a criminal fugitive. She reinforces this fact when earlier in the film Bigelow has Maya, who represents America — remember? — tell the US soldiers “you’re going to kill [bin Laden] for me”.
And then comes the ultimate crescendo of the film, the assassination of Osama bin Laden. According to Bigelow’s portrayal of events – which she claims is based on first-hand accounts – Osama is gunned down while unarmed in his bedroom after opening the door to a US soldier pretending to be an ally and calling out his first name. In this scene, not only does this solider simply shoot the first person who opens the door, seemingly without even having time to ascertain who his target is, but shortly after this Bigelow makes a point of showing us that bin Laden’s weapon is still hanging untouched above the head of his bed, and well away from the spot where he was slain.
Zero Dark Thirty ends not with a triumphant and victorious celebration, but with a weeping Maya all alone in a totally empty military cargo plane. And rightly so, for the killing of Osama bin Laden was not an act of justice to be celebrated; no, it was pure revenge killing that was the culmination of previous unethical actions all carried out in the name of the “war on terror”.
This was American foreign policy at its consequentialist worst.
Bigelow is careful to avoid being politically partisan in her film. This isn’t about the polices of either left or right, but about the American nation as a whole, and what it has allowed itself to become as a result of a blind obsession with seeking vengeance for 911.
When Maya is viewed as being representative of post-9/11 America, the words of the pilot who welcomes her aboard that aircraft at the end of the movie become chillingly profound. When she boards the plane and takes her seat she is greeted with: “You must be pretty important, you’ve got the whole plane to yourself. Where do you want to go?” She is speechless and does not know how to reply to him.
Yes, Maya is America, and just like America the killing of Osama bin Laden has not brought any closure, peace or true fulfilment. Instead, it has left her all alone in the world and uncertain of exactly what direction she should take next.
The man responsible for masterminding the 9/11 attacks has been killed, but at what price, and for what end?
Was the killing of Osama bin Laden really an act of self-defense, or was it an unethical act carried out by a nation that has lost its way in a mire of ‘the end justifies the means’ rationalizations since September 9, 2001?
Has it actually even ended the threat of al Qaeda, as Maya, during the film, promises us that it will? Or has it simply set in motion a series of events that will lead to a resurgence in anti-Western sentiment and violence?
Brendan Malone writes from Christchurch, New Zealand. He blogs at The Leading Edge, where a slightly different version of this review was first published.