Zero Dark Thirty implores discussion
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, January 11, at the Park Theatre
Roughly a month after Zero Dark Thirty debuted in a few American cities, critical discussion has been overwhelmed by moral indignation. Often generated by people who haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow’s new effort, the deepest concerns are over its depiction of torture. After the Abu Ghraib eruption in 2006, such discussion virtually disappeared—two U.S. presidential elections notwithstanding—so this has to be viewed as a net positive.
Here, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal leave the micro-environment they explored in The Hurt Locker, tackling the 10-year search for Osama bin Laden. The filmmakers conflate events and personalities in order to focus on a semifictionalized CIA analyst called Maya. Played with almost self-negating determination by Jessica Chastain, she moves up the ranks through her conviction that the 9-11 mastermind’s exact location is, to paraphrase then–torturer-in-chief Donald Rumsfeld, a knowable unknown.
Before settling, sometimes clumsily but often with wit and ingenuity, into its procedural details, the almost 160-minute tale begins with brutality at a black site in Afghanistan. Maya is visibly disgusted by the waterboarding (and worse) of an al-Qaeda money man (Reda Kateb), but she stays in the game longer than does the resident sadist she witnesses, a CIA colleague played by Jason Clarke. Whether or not this “enhanced interrogation” actually brings anything but bad news to all involved remains in contention throughout; characters on multiple levels of government argue that the coerced information is tainted, questionable, and far too prolific to be useful, let alone justified.
In any case, the hunt eventually leads to a tense re-creation of the navy SEAL takedown of that compound in Pakistan. Certainly, some audiences will cheer the night-vision finale. But what are they going to do with the movie’s bleak coda, in which Maya stares into space, wonders what the whole adventure was worth, and implores us to talk about what we’ve seen?