LATE IN THE AFTERNOON on May 1, 2011, White House photographer Pete Souza took a photograph. It shows Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and 11 other people all receiving live updates on Operation Neptune Spear, the raid which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. The expressions on their faces suggest worry, suspense, and, in Obama’s case, a grim, awful determination. The screen they’re looking at, however, cannot be seen. It is behind and to the left of camera, out of frame.
In the final sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which might be described as a three-hour reply to this photograph, the viewer sees every corpse except for the corpse he wants to see most. Bin Laden’s courier, the one the CIA followed all the way to the Abbottabad compound, is seen splayed out on the floor as Navy SEALs rush in and restrain his sobbing wife. A few rooms down, SEALs pump supplemental lead into the bodies of a man and a woman, just to make sure, and we see that too. In a stairwell, a SEAL pauses, calling softly around the corner until someone pokes his head just slightly into view, and then he drops. Bin Laden, though, we never see.
Or, rather, we almost see him. Something moves in the next room before the SEAL opens fire. We see a shape on the ground, and we watch the SEALs look down with something like wonder: “Do you even realize what you just did?” One of them pulls out a digital camera, and then — in this film that pays such close and intelligent attention to the things people watch on screens — Bigelow’s own camera leans over the SEAL’s shoulder. There it almost is, bin Laden’s face, or what must be bin Laden’s face, on the digital camera’s little two-inch viewfinder. It’s blurry and washed out by the flash. It lasts for maybe a quarter of a second, and then the scene cuts away.
I found this moment intensely moving, as I did much else in Bigelow’s film, which is a masterpiece. 9/11 was a mass murder, but it was also designed as a media spectacle. The whole point of flying planes into skyscrapers was to set off explosions high in the air where everyone could see. When the United States launched the War on Terror in reply, one important goal was to cook up images that could compete with or erase the fireball, the billowing smoke, the blue sky. Saddam Hussein’s statue toppled by an armored truck in Firdos Square; President Bush in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier deck — the only thing undermining these images was their fraudulence. But there are no iconic images in Zero Dark Thirty, no riffs on the Abu Ghraib torture photographs, no poses struck. Bigelow’s camera keeps moving, as though to fend such images off. The movie opens instead with the sounds of 9/11: dispatchers’ instructions, desperate calls, voice-mails. These intimate recordings play out over the audience in total darkness.
One of Bigelow’s first films, The Set-Up, screened at the Whitney Museum in 1978, and it features one man beating up another on a city street. The blows were apparently authentic, and Bigelow remains interested in what it means to watch real violence on screen. In Zero Dark Thirty’s opening scene, a CIA torturer named Dan pauses with Maya, an intelligence analyst and the film’s protagonist, outside a locked shed. There is a man inside, tied up with ropes and pulleys, and Dan is about to go b...read more