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Some Ways Into Zero Dark Thirty

By Larry Gross on December 18, 2012

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THE OPENING

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty begins with two complementary instances of terror. One is the agony in the voices of desperate people trying to comprehend the event of the conflagration on the top floors of the World Trade Center—the voices of people about to die conversing with those struggling to console, or to offer uncomprehending (and of course false) reassurance. The other scene shows diligent, serious, intelligent CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke), observed by the film’s main character Maya (Jessica Chastain), torturing a captive Al Qaeda agent in pursuit of information concerning the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden.

Dan has briefly instructed Maya about what she is about to see, apologizing afterwards: “It’s not always this intense.” But of course what we see over the next two hours is often this intense; it’s also an enigmatic series of messages/instructions for the audience guiding us in how to view—or not view—the film that is about to unfold. For instance: “You don’t have to come in—you can watch on the monitor,” Dan tells Maya. This is a crucially complicated double-edged statement addressed as much to the audience as it is to Maya—after all, we’re the ones watching on the monitor. We’re the ones who have the luxury of maintaining a safe distance from the sometimes brutal procedures Americans execute in pursuit of their terrorist targets.

Maya’s refusal to watch from the monitor points to her courage and integrity, but it also opens up a whole epistemological can of worms, because even seeing it up close (even making a film as rigorous as Zero Dark Thirty) can still never quite be the same as gaining perfect objective knowledge. So in a way the most terrifying line in the film is the rule Dan lays down for his prisoner-victim late in the sequence: “Partial information is treated like a lie.” There is of course nothing that anyone can give anyone in these circumstances except partial information. Therefore by the code of the interrogator, everything they’re given, indeed every unit of information they acquire, is a lie.

But there’s more. This double sequence establishes the moral and ideological agnosticism that characterizes the film in its entirety. The link between the scenes has been read (mistakenly in my opinion) as causal. Our folks got tortured and killed, and we are therefore rightly torturing those responsible in return—but that’s not how it feels. The two scenes feel less like a diachronic unfolding and more like one sequence with two comparable and complementary components. 

The crucial connecting similarity is that both sequences involve the relation between the incomprehensible imminence of violent death, and the anxious, impossible attempt to gain—and even master—knowledge. The victims of 9/11 endure the quintessence of torture: they can see and feel their flesh being mutilated and inexorably transformed. The terror of the detainee being tortured seems to exist in the bleak space between victim, interrogator, and audience.

Known as a virtuoso of choreographed action-violence sequences, Kathryn Bigelow is making an anti-action film focusing on cognition, perception, and interpretation. Most startlingly, with this gut-twistingly visceral opening onslaught, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are always compelling the viewer to think and reflect about what lies behind—or beyond—the image, directing us to what is not seen, what is excluded, what is beyond the frame, beyond recognition, and ultimately outside the limits of the known and the knowable. Even as we are “sucked in” in the most extreme way, we are at the same time pushed back and made to reflect.

And so this meticulously researched narrative, even as it reaches out beyond the frame and into events that “really happened” is also, at the same time, reflecting inward upon itself, on it own conditions of possibility as a work of art.

BIGELOW-BOAL, INC.

Zero Dark Thirty

“I’m a delivery system for Mark’s content.”

—Kathryn Bigelow, in a recent New York magazine interview

The story of collaboration and its mysterious alchemy in the production of film art has not been satisfactorily told. It would seem at first blush to run against auteurism and the cult of directors, and thus be a blow to easily classifying and evaluating films. But let’s not be entirely sure. In my opinion, the story of the evolution of great directors, great auteurs, is often, though not necessarily, the story of their meeting with an indispensable collaborator.

I spoke to someone who had worked on an “early, funny” Woody Allen movie, and when I marveled at how Allen’s films had subsequently (in the late Seventies) grown in visual sophistication, this guy’s reply was that Allen had simply ceded the visuals to Gordon Willis. To which I responded: “You’re saying that Gordon Willis ‘really’ directed Manhattan?” “No,” he clarified, “I’m saying Gordon Willis helped Woody Allen become the full and complete Woody Allen.” In the same sense, Capra fully became Capra when he met screenwriter Robert Riskin, and Bergman became Bergman when he met DP Sven Nykvist.

This alchemy is a little better known to us when the “new” element is an actor. No one would say that John Wayne shares authorship of the films he made with John Ford, yet John Ford became a different filmmaker after he worked with Wayne on Stagecoach. Kurosawa was not entirely Kurosawa until he met Mifune, Sternberg until Dietrich—the list goes on, etc., ad gloriam.

Bigelow came into creative contact with Boal at the nadir of her commercial prospects in the studio system after the expensive failure of K-19: The Widowmaker, which followed the virtual non-release of The Weight of Water and the failure of Strange Days. That kind of commercial disaster more often than not destroys careers, vaporizes confidence, heightens a filmmaker’s reliance on mediocre conventional wisdom, and inspires a desperate search for the commercially reassuring and safe. But on some rare occasions, a filmmaker is actually positively inspired—even liberated—by such setbacks (check out the list of stinkers Eastwood was involved in before he renewed his career in Unforgiven!). Even as financing and projects coming together grows ever chancier, a rare few make a heroic existential decision to shoot the works—“Percentage players die broke, too, Burt,” as Paul Newman warns George C. Scott in The Hustler. This, I suspect, was something of the background when Kathryn met Mark.

What makes all the difference about “Mark’s content” is not only, or even exclusively, its wonderful journalistic authenticity. It’s that the terrain of both films he’s written for Bigelow—the war in Iraq, the war on Terror—is always already outside the norms of easy feel-good genre entertainment. Bigelow has become ensconced in telling stories that require a determination to think outside various commercial boxes, and avoid certain obvious thematic-ideological traps from the moment she decides to treat them at all. The films have to be exceptional or they have no reason to be.

Boal sometimes is “responsible” (you guess) for a simply fabulous nugget of dialogue or behavior gleaned from research, say, the priceless moment when one of the Navy SEALs enthuses about his future plan to sell the self-improvement doctrine of Tony Robbins. It’s one of those bits no fiction writer could conceivably make up. Or as one author of a docudrama once said to me: “Reality is the best writer.” What the authenticity of Boal’s research does is give Bigelow the confidence to construct films that are fully and powerfully her own. Bigelow is ultimately more interested in the intensity of the absolute singularity of an event than she is in regular character development and its predictable resolution. That means she requires exceptionally interesting events.

So while I’m sure that Bigelow is perfectly sincere in describing herself as a delivery system for Boal’s content, the other way to think of it is that Boal is an indispensable collaborator, who has enabled Kathryn Bigelow to fully become Kathryn Bigelow.

MAYA

Zero Dark Thirty

A statistical study worth pursuing: in a film lasting two hours and 39 minutes, shot in seven locations, with a speaking cast of 102, how many, or what percentage, of the shots are single medium shots and close-ups of Jessica Chastain?

No one face and body has dominated an epic film of this scale to this degree since another redhead, Peter O’Toole, in another film about a strange, out-of-place Westerner in the Arab-Muslim world, Lawrence of Arabia. But O’Toole’s Lawrence, for all his idiosyncrasies, had a traditionally glamorous justification for his centrality: he got to ride camels and blow things up. Maya performs no strenuous physical action; she cowers in a fetal position the two times she’s attacked, and spends most of the film behind desks, reading files, and looking at screens. 

Of course Maya could be involved in a compelling emotional journey in her interaction with other characters, but in fact, it is almost an hour and a half into the film before she influences or has an effect on another character in any remotely dramatic way. Before that she has a seemingly promising student-mentor relationship with the interrogator Dan, but it ends when he abruptly leaves the story midway through. Eventually, she will convince an exhausted field agent (Edgar Ramirez, who plays the titular antihero terrorist of Assayas’ Carlos!) to conduct a dangerous surveillance. What’s subtextually fascinating about this scene is that Ramirez’s casually sexy charisma is something that Maya is completely indifferent to, to the point of being unaware of it at all. She will ultimately persuade him by invoking an almost Islamic sense of fatedness: “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”

Maya has a conventional scene exploding at her boss for not backing her manpower demands, but when she expresses regret that her station chief has been undermined by Pakistani intelligence, it feels barely felt. She gradually comes to respect the SEAL team members who will act to confirm and vindicate her endless investigation, but nothing is more poignant than the image of her observing, from a distance, their all-boy rites and rituals and feeling her utter exclusion from their group solidarity. Between their world of pragmatic action and her twilight universe of endless detached observation, there is an unbridgeable abyss. Maya is quite simply one of the loneliest, most solitary characters ever to serve as the protagonist of an American studio film.

When I started to think of precedents besides Lawrence, of course the exhausted trio of investigators in Zodiac, played by Ruffalo, Gyllenhaal, and Downey came to mind, but then I recognized a precursor in another obsessively researched procedural film: the astronaut David Bowman in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Dave, Maya spends most of her screen time looking at screens, and her adventure, while set in a physically extraordinary setting of consummate strangeness, is also fundamentally an adventure of the mind, of thought, perception, and cognition.

In one key respect, then, she is a seer, even a kind of visionary, consumed by what she sees. Indeed, Bigelow’s camera is endlessly fascinated with the sight of Chastain seeing. Peering, focusing, glancing, withdrawing, finding, and penetrating, at times Chastain seems to have as many tonalities for looking as a piano has keys. The seemingly endless ways that Chastain performs “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes” is one of the glories of the film. And finally, all the boilerplate feminist stuff about Maya being a female in a male-dominated work space as an allegory for Bigelow’s dilemmas in the Hollywood boys club of action directors, is simply surpassed by the intensity of Maya as a (self-)portrait of the artist. One awaits the day when Bigelow will transpose Flaubert’s famous remark about his best-known heroine and say, “Maya, c’est moi.”

There is another fascinating progression in her character’s development. The very first time we see her, she is wearing the black hood of a torturer; the second time she is partially veiled, and a few scenes later, she is veiled and wearing a wig. In the last hour of the film, she will enter her apartment in full burqa. Bigelow even goes so far as to have her drive a vehicle of the same color as the terrorist-courier she is so desperate to trace. We know, or think we know, what Al Qaeda is, what the main characteristic of terrorists are: they are dedicated, relentless, determined to struggle until victory or death. In other words they are identical to Maya. As in the immortal words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Late in The Hurt Locker there was a brilliant image that silently and concisely complicated the movie’s celebration of the hero’s brilliant warrior skills: he stands back at home in a supermarket facing a wall full of canned goods, utterly baffled. What the image insists upon painfully reminding us is that the very extraordinary precision and skill of the hero involves a narrow mentality—and woeful costs.

Zero Dark Thirty ends on a comparably disturbing revelation. Maya’s unremitting obsession with finding and killing Bin Laden has been accomplished, and that is an authentically heroic accomplishment, which affords her and us genuine relief. But it immediately opens up a new and harrowing question: what has been left out of her awareness, experience, and consciousness in order to accomplish this goal? What has this victory cost and where has it left her—and us? The film ends with Maya possessed by this unanswerable enigma. And more than ever, she is alone.

THIS IS IMPORTANT / YOU MUST BE IMPORTANT

Zero Dark Thirty

At a key moment of exposition, Maya insists that what a suspected terrorist does not discuss over the phone reveals it’s “important.”

Important is a mystical term in Zero Dark Thirty: it’s one of the first words spoken to the captured prisoner in the film’s beginning (“you’re important”), and one of the last words addressed to Maya near the end. Its plot significance refers to that unique quality that a piece of information may possess, that will link it to other information, and render it a legitimate invitation to action. Its synonym is “actionable” intelligence. But the mania for defining something as important also refers to the near impossibility of doing so.

The term is a key piece of shorthand for Bigelow and screenwriter Boal’s eliminative-minimalist method of storytelling. Their enterprise is all about distilling the billions of elements of the bin Laden manhunt down to a credible sequence of ‘important’ moments. This creative problem is in turn linked to the conceptual problem facing the larger agenda: piecing together a billion fragments of data, collected worldwide, to illuminate a few important goals and targets. 

Every scrap that is picked over, contested, debated, for being or not being important, is necessarily shadowed by the deluge of the information not even being considered: information whose significance has been rejected, or whose utility has been exhausted. In fact, in Zero Dark Thirty everything we are shown constantly invokes the shadowy, contradictory vastness of the world off-screen, that which is outside what Maya and her colleagues are obsessively focusing on in the movie. These sometimes explode in bloodshed and become threats that materialize before they can be stopped, scenarios tying together the details that don’t pay off.

For us watching, absorbed in the events unfolding, the off-screen space—what we aren’t able to see, what we can’t be told—is constantly and evocatively suggested as complementary to, and as important as, what is heard, told, shown.

KNOWING

Zero Dark Thirty

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don't know.”

—United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

I’ve suggested that part of what makes watching Zero Dark Thirty so dense and complicated is that it is always surreptitiously referring to its own structure. The story of “getting bin Laden” is told in such a way as to make us reflect on the problem of how that story can—and ought—to be told. One such problem that the film must wrestle with and find a way to put to its own effective use are those aspects of the events, which we may or may not know already, and sometimes only dimly half-remember.

When a geographic title is burned in over a location with a date—May 29, 2004, Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia—just half an hour in, we only have a split second to be prepared for (and/or remember) the major Al Qaeda attack on a Saudi government stronghold that took place there on that date. The film is beginning to instruct us that dates and places will refer to Al Qaeda attacks. Around half an hour later this is confirmed when the title refers to London on a particular date and it’s a little more familiar. Ultimately, when a major character we care about is present after a title designating Camp Chapman, Afghanistan, Dec. 30, 2009, the effect is ominously suspenseful. By now we’ve received the instruction, we’ve been trained as it were, to get in the habit of reading this data as a signal that horrific violence is about to ensue.

Maya mentions Abbottabad, a city in Pakistan, about 40 minutes before the end of the film in a laundry list of places where bin Laden might finally, at last be located. She places no special emphasis on it but we pick up on it—it was one of the few named facts of the raid that all public reportage initially included.

As the final act of the film begins, there is an exquisitely powerful moment when one of the CIA field agents in Pakistan is finally able to begin tracking the bin Laden courier who has been Maya’s near decade-long obsession, getting a partial POV perspective on the compound where that courier lives. We barely recognize it as the bin Laden hiding place that the Seals ultimately attacked, but we see it—a cropped and truncated fragment—along with him, with just barely enough detail.

This moment is electrifying not only in its own right as a decisive piece of the narrative puzzle, but also because it is so profoundly linked to the film’s entire structure. Even as we get closer to zeroing in (excuse the pun) on the ultimate narrative information, we are always reminded that what we are being presented with can only be perceived and known as a fragment. And all this time we are haunted by the warning that was put in our heads at the beginning that “partial information is treated as a lie,” a decisive truth that could so easily have been missed.

THE ENDING

Zero Dark Thirty

Like many another important work of art, Zero Dark Thirty is saturated in paradox. Toward the end we have begun to learn to recognize that the film is structured as a transparently simple, straightforward telling of getting bin Laden, while at the same time a meditation on the impossibility of precisely such a simple view of the event.

Like the opening interrogation set piece, the closing attack on the compound in Abbottabad rigorously positions us in an excruciating, uncannily contradictory position, between the known and unknown, the visible and the opaque, immersion and detachment. The mission unfolds with agonizingly slow and methodical clarity, and yet for the team—and for us—this climactic action repeats, restates, and restages on a grand scale the opening enigmas of visceral immediacy blended with uncertainty, visibility, and obscurity, and the known and the unknowable, even while it extends and completes the narrative.

With their helmets mounted with multiple video lenses, the SEALs finally convert Maya’s vocation of seeing-as-truth-finding into literal bloody action, but the sequence systematically deprives us of a sense of explosive release. The determination to act accurately means confronting the ultimate obscurities and unknowns. The Seals act out physically the accomplishments of what Maya has done cognitively and perceptually, but encounter a kind of chaos that can never be fully mastered. When Maya finally hears that bin Laden is dead, she has been off-screen for the largest period of time in the film and the sense of relief is all the more authentic for being so tenuous.

But then comes a final crucially self-reflexive choice by Bigelow: she denies us direct visual access to bin Laden’s body. Maya confirms the identity of his corpse, but at the very last, lost moment we are deprived of directly seeing what she sees—a cropped suggestion of the corpse’s beard is the closest we come to optical satisfaction. This is not the universe in which we’re given the straightforward cathartic “kill shot.” 

Why must this be the case? Because Bigelow and Boal are authentically haunted by the authoritative procedural assertion that “incomplete knowledge is taken as a lie.” They hold themselves to that standard, which is to say that as the final paradox, it is only conceding that all knowledge is partial that is not a lie. The known never finally or conclusively conquers the unknown; all knowledge is shadowed with ignorance, illusion, and lies. With shattering quiet, at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, after all we have learned, experienced, and found, it is the unknown, the insoluble enigma of death itself, that lingers with Maya and the audience alike.

NO POLITICS / POLITICS: SHOW NOT TELL

Zero Dark Thirty

“No ideas but in things.”

—William Carlos Williams

Jacques Derrida describes a late autobiographical account of near death at the hands of the Nazis by French writer-philosopher Maurice Blanchot. Terms like witness, secrecy, testimony and fiction are all juggled in Derrida’s commentary:

The Instant of My Death will not simply illustrate what we are saying. I want to follow it to the point where, taking us beyond all the categories upon which we too easily rely, it helps us to render them problematic, fragile, uneasy.

Bigelow and Boal utilize every legitimate journalistic method and convention of objectivity, precision, accuracy, and neutrality to ultimately render all these familiar categories upon which we too easily rely, problematic, fragile and uneasy.

There are no liberal bromides condemning the moral or ideological wrongs of the War on Terror in Zero Dark Thirty, and neither is there a shred of confirming feel-good affirmation about the morally justified or purportedly inevitable victory of the American cause. Such banalities of either ideological stripe would be wholly out of keeping with the film’s fascinated, dedicated, immersive closeness to phenomena, events, atmospheres, to the things themselves. The film is in love with the details of what it is disclosing; Zero Dark Thirty shows but refuses to tell.

And yet it is not, therefore, finally or entirely ideologically neutral, some superhuman expression of pure objectivity, whatever that would be, despite Bigelow and Boal’s disclaimers and perhaps even their wishes. Both are of the conviction that trying their best to show how things actually happen, comes closer to getting at the truth of our decade-long Middle Eastern adventures than dramatizing arguments for and against the policy. It’s easier on an audience to tell them what they ought to think and believe, but the complexity of reality suffers in the process. Zero Dark Thirty shows but refuse to tell. It gives us all the available intel about the prosecution of the War on Terror, leaving it to us to discover, intuit, and reckon with the agonizing impossibility of maintaining some easy and moral ideological superiority to our enemy, or even any conclusive definite knowledge of where our actions are leading us. In my opinion, Zero Dark Thirty quite starkly reveals the ultimate futility of our policies precisely by resolving to show and not tell.

The Hurt Locker, if you recall, never pronounced upon or directly stated the wrongness of our presence in Iraq. It simply dispassionately displayed the insoluble discontinuity between the narrowly defined precision and bravery of its warrior-hero, and the unknowable unmanageable moral chaos of day-to-day conditions on the ground. This is not a humanist moral or ideological condemnation of American wrong doing, but a rigorous elucidation of an inescapable and tragic condition of illusion and error.

Zero Dark Thirty reiterates the presentation of this discontinuity on an epic scale. It doesn’t moralistically condemn policies and those who enact them, so that we can feel smug liberal superiority, it simply displays the practices and the policy for what they are. If we can’t infer the catastrophes that have been—and probably will continue to be—the result (see today’s front page re: Syria) the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.

FULL DISCLOSURE

Zero Dark Thirty

Thirty years ago, my boss and co-writer Walter Hill and I were casting the villain for a piece we’d just written called Streets of Fire. Our casting director showed us a short film The Loveless, starring Willem Dafoe who got the part. We met the film’s director, a Columbia University art student named Kathryn Bigelow.

I’ve remained friendly acquaintances with Kathryn ever since. I enjoyed and admired Near Dark and Point Break, didn’t much care for Blue Steel, and considered others of her film ambitious misfires. Like many, I admired The Hurt Locker, but its considerable merits didn’t prepare me for the difficult splendors of her latest work. Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece and on the strength of it, Kathryn Bigelow has joined the ranks of the masters.

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