‘Zero Dark Thirty’ And The Emptiness Of The War On Terror

I saw Zero Dark Thirty in Los Angeles, prior to its screening for critics in Washington, DC tonight, and consequently am reviewing it somewhat earlier than my colleagues in the DC critics’ corps. This post contains extensive discussion of plot details in the film, including the final scene, because it is impossible to discuss the most important issues in Zero Dark Thirty without doing so.Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which was in production before bin Laden was killed by American soldiers on May 2, 2011, is one of the difficult movies I’ve ever had to write about. Long before most critics or policy analysts had seen the film, it became the subject of intense debate over whether it presented torture as an effective weapon in the war against terrorism. It’s true that Zero Dark Thirty will be politically unsatisfying to observers who would have liked to see it thoroughly rebuke the idea that any instance or threat of torture ever produces information that can become actionable under any circumstances. As a matter of politics and policy, that’s where my own preferences lie, and I’d like to see the more low-level but still repulsive use of this trope, the threat of torture in police interrogations, slink ignominiously away from popular culture, where it’s become entirely normalized.

But Zero Dark Thirty, quite rightly, makes the argument that whether or not torture is efficacious is not where our debate about its employment should be taking place. Instead, it has a much more radical project. Zero Dark Thirty a shattering, visually stunning argument that we’ve warped our own souls in pursuit of a goal, the killing of Osama bin Laden, that has left us fundamentally empty and dislocated.

The main character in Zero Dark Thirty is a young Central Intelligence Agency analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who, as part of her brief to aid in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, arrives at a black site to witness the torture of a detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb, in an extraordinary performance that should be one of several contenders for Best Supporting acting nominations) by an agent named Dan (Jason Clarke). When they first meet, Dan remarks on Maya’s lack of preparedness for the work they do at the black site, commenting on “You, rocking your best suit for your first interrogation.” But when Dan tells her “You know, there’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor,” Maya refuses, insisting on being in the room with him, his team, and Ammar, and in the process provides the key to understanding Zero Dark Thirty: what Maya is willing and able to look at, and what she is capable — and not capable — of seeing.The torture sequence that follows gains both its political and artistic power from where Maya’s eyes are at any given moment. As Ammar has a rope apparatus tied around his wrists that hauls him off the floor, Maya hugs herself and looks away, but we still watch it happen. Dan talks her into participating in Ammar’s waterboarding a step at a time, telling her “Grab the bucket. Put some water in it. Come on.” But she closes her eyes when Ammar begins to drown, even as we see him spitting up phlegmy water, his eyes rheumy and oversaturated. When it’s clear that Ammar has shit himself, Dan takes off his pants, telling Ammar, “You don’t mind if my female colleague here checks out your junk, do you? Good.” It’s an act that functions both as sexual humiliation of his captive and sexual harassment of his colleague. Maya puts a hand over her mouth, and it’s the rare shot that spares both us and her, as well as Ammar from our gaze: Ammar’s genitals are not made visible in the shot. When Dan, who has stripped off Ammar’s pants, puts a dog collar on the other man and forces him to walk on all fours like an animal, Maya looks down from the scene in front of her to avoid watching the charade. Maya wants to watch. But she isn’t necessarily capable of making herself see the things she is participating in, even as the audience is confronted with them. There is a double moral gap between us and Maya, here: from our seats in the theater, we cannot help torture Ammar as Maya does, but though we are physically removed from the scene, we are forced to confront more of the events than she does.

Much of the movie subsequent to this long opening sequence, which also introduces Maya and Dan’s colleagues in Pakistan, station chief Joe (Kyle Chandler) and analysts Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) and Jack (Harold Perrineau) is devoted to an exploration of what kind of people would choose to be in that room, and what being in that room does to them. Dan is initially introduced as almost repulsively jovial, a person who calls the prisoner he’s torturing “man,” and “dude,” and who tells Ammar, when he and Maya eat lunch with him after he is let out of the torture room, “I can always go eat with some other guy and hang you back up to the ceiling.” While men bake in cages exposed to the elements at CIA black sites, Dan feeds a monkey ice cream, and mourns its death when it’s killed for fear it will escape. But Dan becomes uncomfortable with his work and requests a transfer back to the United States, telling Maya “I’ve seen too many guys naked…I’ve got to do something normal for a while. You should come with me. You’re looking a little strung out yourself…Listen, be careful with the detainees…You don’t want to be the last one caught holding a dog collar.” Dan may have been capable of being a torturer because of basic defects or emptinesses in him. But doing that terrible work has damaged him so that even he notices that he’s done injury to himself, if not to his country’s moral standing, or to its long-term capacity to fight the war he is enlisted in.


Maya is a much stranger creature, and in the most literal sense of the word, an extraordinary one. She’s incapable of delivering anything but assessments. “How do you like Pakistan so far?” Joe asks her after her initial visit to the black site. “It’s kind of fucked up,” she tells him, an assessment that’s deeply acute, even if she doesn’t think she’s applying it to herself. Unlike many contemporary heroines, who are allowed to be competent at masculine occupations if they’re also sexually available — at least for the audience’s consumption, if not for a male character’s consummation — Maya is resolutely non-sexual and almost non-social. “I’m not that girl that fucks. It’s unbecoming,” Maya tells Jessica over dinner one night when Jessica suggests that Maya might pursue Jack. “Maya, we’re socializing. Be social,” Jessica tells her. “We’re just worried about you. is that okay? Is that okay to say? Look how strung out you are.” Maya isn’t good at intelligence work because she’s as tough as a man, or because she brings a feminine capacity for connection that male analysts act. Instead, she’s strange in a particular and de-gendered way, capable of the obsession that makes for excellent intelligence work, but for essentially nothing else.

And as Maya’s quest for bin Laden lengthens into years, her intensifying radicalism parallels the men she pursues. No longer the observer, the girlish analyst who wore a suit to a torture session where she had to be encouraged, step-by-step to participate in waterboarding, Maya begins leading sessions herself. “If he keeps withholding, he’s going to die from the pressure you’re putting on him,” Dan warns her at one point, after she continues torturing a man who insists he can’t give her information he doesn’t possess. She can be similarly merciless and didactic with people on her own side. “I don’t really care if you guys get sleep or not,” she tells a team assigned to get close to potential human targets on the ground in Pakistan, demanding that they add shifts so their coverage can be more comprehensive, and treating them rather like purposefully exhausted detainees. Maya may not believe in any God, much less in Allah, but she has a downright-messianic sense of purpose, telling an agency official, “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”

It’s how she does the job that’s inspired much of the commentary about, and outrage against, Zero Dark Thirty. And it’s true that in the film, people who are either being tortured, or who have been tortured in the past, including Ammar and another detainee who tells Maya “I have no wish to be tortured again,” after she tells him if that he cooperates, she may be able to have him held in Pakistan rather than turned over to the Israeli government, reveal the wartime alias of a courier who worked for Osama bin Laden. That’s in keeping with the conclusions of Mark Costanzo of Claremont McKenna College and Ellen Gerritty of Duke University, who wrote in a 2009 paper that: “Torturers may extract large quantities of information, but the proportion of true to false information is difficult to determine. Unfortunately, actions based on false information will waste time, lead in the wrong direction, put soldiers at risk, and put the lives of innocent people in jeopardy. We know from the civilian criminal justice system that people cannot easily recognize false confessions.” The events that follow are in keeping with that scenario, and with some contested history: The New York Times’ reporting suggests that one detainee who was tortured “provided a crucial description of the courier, according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations,” though Donald Rumsfeld has disputed that account. But it’s also true that other detainees mislead interrogators as to the courier’s identity, and Zero Dark Thirty would have been a stronger moral statement and a stronger mystery if it had included that false information as part of the data Maya needs to sort through, and as a consequence of her actions.

The movie is stronger when it addresses the painstaking intelligence analysis and detective work that turned that slim lead into actionable intelligence that lead the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s compound. As my colleague Ken Sofer has written about the timeline of the war on terror, this is a perspective that is accurate in the broad strokes. It takes legitimate investigative techniques to distinguish the signals from the snarl of sound produced by Dan and Maya’s willingness to torture their fellow human beings.

Even this scenario is unacceptable for some viewers of the movie, and I understand that. But I didn’t come away from Zero Dark Thirty convinced that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were trying to argue that torture should remain part of America’s investigative toolkit in the war against terrorism — or even that they believe that we should continue to fight that war at all. The torture of Ammar includes a brutal deconstruction of the 24-esque ideal of torturing a suspect as an effective last-ditch resort when an attack was imminent. As he’s packed into a tiny, suffocating box when he doesn’t have information about when a rumored attack is supposed to occur, he begins sobbing days of the week at random, telling Dan and Maya, “Sunday! Monday! Tuesday! Friday!” Dan himself, in a risk assessment meeting towards the end of the movie that will determine whether a raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound should go forward, explains “We’re basing it on detainee reporting. I spent some time in those rooms. I’d say a soft 60 percent,” a far lower number than anyone else sitting around the conference table.


Jessica’s experiences do act as a counterpoint to Dan and Maya’s approach, and as an argument for the difference between the last force America was convinced was its existential enemy and the current adversary. Convinced that al Qaeda recruits are as vulnerable to human desire as Russian spies, she wants to develop and buy sources with the bounty on bin Laden’s head. For a meeting with a source who “The Jords worked…for a year. They gave him dinners, money, convinced him it’s his patriotic duty to turn on al Qaeda,” Jessica tells Maya “This may be going overboard. I baked him a cake.” When Maya tells her that “Muslims don’t celebrate with cake,” Jessica’s optimism shines through. “Don’t be silly,” she tells the younger woman. “Everyone likes cake.” She trusts the source enough to insist that he not be searched until he comes on the base in a scene that shows for the first time that she wears a wedding ring. And that trust ultimately leads to her death when the source turns out to be wearing a suicide vest, in a clear allusion to the death of CIA agent Jennifer Matthews in Khost in 2009.

Jessica may have been wrong about her source, but her methods live beyond her. Her belief that greed is a transcendent force in human life becomes one of the ways the CIA puts together critical clues about the case after detainee interrogations fall permanently short of the finish line. After Maya becomes convinced that the courier the detainees named was dead, it’s Debbie (Jessica Collins), a young analyst new to Pakistan, who discovers, as part of her painstaking research through old files, that the dead man had brothers, one of whom could be the courier. If where Maya is looking at any given time matters, her obsessive review of DVDs of detainee interviews seem to have lead her to look in the wrong places. It’s Hakim (Fares Fares), an agent who is able to blend into Pakistan after Maya is pulled from the field after an attempt on her life, who finally spots the courier after hours of driving in circles trying to triangulate where his cell phone signal is coming from. And Dan gets a final infusion of cash for the project from a Muslim CIA official, known as The Wolf (Fredric Lehne), which he uses to purchase a phone number for the courier’s mother from a man who trades the information for a yellow Lamborghini.

All of this work is in service of the mission as laid out for Maya and her coworkers by their boss George: “Do your fucking jobs. Bring me people to kill.” But once that target has been acquired, the mission changes to an examination of what it means to kill a man who, we’ve decided as a society, cannot be accorded a trial, because the logistics would be impossible, because it would mean giving him a platform, and because the truth is, nothing we do to him can make recompense for the harm he made us to do ourself and our values. “I didn’t want to use you guys, with your dip and your Velcro,” Maya tells the team of SEALs she’s assigned to brief. “I wanted to drop a bomb.” But she isn’t given the choice to obliterate bin Laden and anyone who might be with him, including a large number of children and young adults, from a place of physical and emotional distance.

If the movie valorizes the competence of the SEALs she has to work with instead, it doesn’t clothe them in somber glory, either. On the helicopter ride into Pakistan, Justin (Chris Pratt) tells his comrades in arms that he’s using his iPod to listen to “Tony Robbins. You should listen to it. I got big ideas I want to talk to all of you about.” Later, after killing two people, he’ll tell his fellow SEALs, “I fucking smoked Abrar and his wife. She’s going to bleed out.” The team tells the children whose parents they’ve just killed that “It’s okay.” And when they return to their base of operations in Afghanistan and inventory the hard drives, files, and dead body they brought back with them from Pakistan, one of them jokes of bin Laden being the contents of the third floor of the compound, “Third floor, ladies’ underwear,” a riff that whether he knows it or not, refers back to the sexual humiliation of detainees.

But accomplishment is not the same as satisfaction, much less rightness. And Zero Dark Thirty suggests that after the flush of killing Osama bin Laden came a kind of emptiness. The SEAL who shot bin Laden refers to the dead terrorist as “the third floor guy.” Justin makes the petty decision to take an AK-47 from the wall of the room where bin Laden was killed. Maya, more than any person in the world, has invested herself in getting to the moment when she’s called over to make a positive identification of bin Laden. But once it’s done, and she steps out of the tent into the pale light of an Afghanistan morning, there isn’t anything waiting for her, no praise, no acclaim, the terrible facts of his final act haven’t gone away. Maya is testament to the fact that bin Laden managed to change the way America thought and acted about itself long after he’d entombed himself in concrete. And in chasing him, she’s participated in that damage.

At its very end, Zero Dark Thirty suggests that such emptiness is not only the fate of Maya, who at one point tells the CIA director she’s done nothing else for the agency, and who essentially confirms to Jessica that she has no other life. After two and a half hours of watching Maya watch screaming men in empty rooms, and DVDs, and instant message chats, and helicopters flying off into the Pakistani night, she finally turns her eyes to us. After she is no longer needed in Afghanistan, Maya walks into the gut of a military transport plane, a vehicle that has no windows from which she can look out onto the world she has altered altered. “You must be pretty important,” the pilot tells her. “You got the plane to yourself. Where do you want to go?” But just as Maya walked outside the tent that held bin Laden’s body and found nothing waiting for her, she doesn’t have an answer for him, just as it’s not clear where we go in a post-bin Laden world now that we’ve experienced what was supposed to be the catharsis of his death. With the plane’s maroon webbing aping an American flag behind her head, Maya looks out from the screen to those of us who have observed her and done nothing, constrained in these circumstances by our position as movie-goers, a situation that mocks our general inaction in the real world. And then she starts to cry.