Mission Accomplished: On “Zero Dark Thirty”

February 24, 2013   •   By Richard Beck

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 back to work. “You know there’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor,” he says. Later, beginning to piece things together, Maya spends a long night, or series of nights — it’s unclear — doing exactly that. She views tape after tape of interrogations, different men in different undisclosed locations, tied up in different ways yet all repeating the same significant name. Later still, in the manner of somebody half-watching an unimportant football game, she sees a drone strike play out in real time. She is chatting on the phone with a friend, who tells her there will be lots of wine at some party. “Cool, bring me back a bottle,” she says, as the monitor’s light bathes her face. 

Maya watches these videos not because she is a sadist or a voyeur but because she is a professional. The one question posed by her environment — “Are you doing a good job?” — is a question that lacks a moral component of its own. During the torture years, liberals argued endlessly with the Bush administration about whether torture “worked.” As a result, they accepted the amorality of strict professionalism, whether they knew it or not, and this decision left them in a rather weak negotiating position when Bush’s more competent successor took office. Today, al-Qaeda’s leadership have been decimated. Guantanamo is still open, but people have mostly stopped complaining. The drones always manage to kill somebody. Obama’s War on Terror may not be more ethical than the first version, but there is no doubt that it is being run by qualified experts who know what they are doing. One of the things these experts did, in 2009, was to send an email to all senior Pentagon staff. “This administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror,’” the email read. Under Obama, the conflict’s official name is Overseas Contingency Operations. 

Dan, the torturer, knots violence and professionalism together. Early on, after we’ve seen him waterboard a man named Ammar, walk him around on a leash, and put him inside a small box, conspicuous mention is made of the fact that Dan has a PhD. Later, when Maya asks that he “take a run at” a prisoner she hasn’t been able to break, he tells her that he has decided to take a spot behind a desk in Washington. He wants to “see how that whole game works.” It would be more satisfying, maybe, to see him collapse under the weight of his crimes, but it would also have been more satisfying to see that happen in real life. All we get, instead, is a mild joke: “I think I’ve seen too many guys naked.” The next time we see him, he’s wearing the not-too-slim-fitting navy suit and open-necked white button-front favored by energetic and intelligent ladder-climbers. His beard is gone, and he’s working the CIA bureaucracy. He looks great.

Early in the film, when a station chief asks Maya if she volunteered to work on al-Qaeda and bin Laden, she says no. Although Maya is supposed to represent an intelligence analyst who really exists, she functions more as allegory than as individual. In Washington, she meets with CIA Director Leon Panetta, who wants to know what the deal is with this zealot who thinks she has found bin Laden. She tells him she joined the CIA straight out of high school, but she won’t tell him why. Although Maya’s work seems to comprise the contents of her entire adult life, it is a life that she refuses to acknowledge having chosen. One half-suspects that, in the film’s universe, Maya literally cannot remember how or why she got into her line of work. She is not a workaholic in the light, conventional sense. She is something more unsettling: an obsessive. At the end of their lunch, Panetta asks Maya what else she has done for the CIA. “Nothing,” she replies. “I’ve done nothing else.” 

“Do your jobs. Bring me people to kill.” This is what a boss says to Maya and her colleagues at the end of an angry talking-to. Of the 20 al-Qaeda leadership names on the CIA’s highest-priority list, only four have been eliminated. It is amazing to hear the aims of the War on Terror acknowledged so openly. At no point in Zero Dark Thirty does anyone pretend that bin Laden will be apprehended or tried. At no point does anyone even pretend that capture would be preferable. “Bin Laden is there,” Maya tells the SEALs when she lays out the plan for the first time, “and you’re gonna kill him for me.” When a CIA station chief wants to explain to a colleague that Maya is good at her job, what he specifically says is, “Washington says she’s a killer.”

Left-liberal critics, reporters, and pundits have accused Zero Dark Thirty of two ethical lapses. The first accusation is that Bigelow glorifies torture by suggesting that it produced useful intelligence. “No water boarding, no Bin Laden,” Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times. “That’s what Zero Dark Thirty appears to suggest.” He was joined in this critique by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, and, in The Guardian, by Naomi Wolf, who called Bigelow an “apologist for evil,” like Leni Riefenstahl. In The New York Review of Books, Steve Coll also wrote that “Zero Dark Thirty ultimately failed as journalism because it adopts shortcuts that most reporters would find illegitimate,” and this sums up the second accusation, which is that Bigelow cheated by distorting the facts.

There is not much to say about the first accusation. It is totally incoherent. Of course torture played a role in bin Laden’s death, in that we tortured so many people for so long trying to find him. It is also clear that, while torture frequently produces useless or inaccurate intelligence, it does not always do so. While Leon Panetta has written that the name of bin Laden’s courier did not initially come from a prisoner in CIA custody, it is not disputed that tortured prisoners confirmed the courier’s name, as well as his importance. For intelligence agencies, this confirmation is just as important as learning the name in the first place. Shortly after Zero Dark Thirty’s release, Panetta gave an interview to Agence France-Presse in which he said, “There’s no question that some of the intelligence gathered was a result of those efforts.” Even Senator John McCain, one of the strongest and most consistent critics of the Bush administration’s torture program, has acknowledged that torture “sometimes” works, even though he finds it abhorrent, and even though he believes that it “often produces bad intelligence.” He knows these things, he wrote in The Washington Post, “from personal experience.”

The second accusation, that Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal tweaked or massaged certain facts to fit their narrative aims, has more substance, but it also misreads the film’s intentions in a basic way. Zero Dark Thirty begins with a title card that reads, “Based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” While this is certainly a journalistic claim, it is not only that. The film is not a work of grand social storytelling. It is set almost entirely in small rooms (this is even true of the climactic action scene), and its general atmosphere is one of emotional claustrophobia. That the title card specifies “firsthand accounts” suggests that Bigelow’s primary agenda is not journalistic but psychological. The film is intensely interested in what its characters think about their own work, how they describe it, what they tell each other and themselves about the jobs they’re doing. Maya, Dan, CIA station chief Joseph Bradley, an analyst named Jessica — their psychological lives constitute Zero Dark Thirty’s narrative arc.

Although almost nobody has bothered to notice, the first 90 minutes of that arc are actually about how torture fails. At the film’s outset, Dan presses a tortured detainee for information about a planned terror attack in Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t get what he needs, and 22 people are killed. “It’s okay,” a colleague tells him. “Focus on London.” On July 7, 2005, bombs go off all over London. Fifty-two civilians are killed. They work to plan a sting operation in Pakistan in 2008, and then a truck bomb goes off at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad with enough force to leave a 60-foot crater in the ground. Dozens more die. In 2009, a suicide bomber kills seven CIA operatives inside Camp Chapman in eastern Afghanistan. Maya’s closest work friend, Jessica, is among the dead, and she is also to blame: it was her idea to meet with the double-agent terrorist in the first place.

With each new failure, Maya clutches her job a little closer. The worse the War on Terror looks, the more important it is to win it. After Jessica’s death, a colleague finds Maya slumped over on her office floor, drinking whisky out of a plastic cup. “What are you gonna do?” he asks. “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op,” she says, “and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.” 

Susan Sontag once wrote that every mass art form is practiced and experienced as “a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.” Zero Dark Thirty’s critics, unwilling to understand themselves as the film’s intended audience, instead imagined that “real Americans” were being made tools of power through one of their most important social rites: moviegoing. What these critics did not confront was their own need to fend off anxiety. For Maya, as for many Americans, the anxiety has to do with the inadequacy of Osama bin Laden’s death as consolation for all of the disasters that preceded it. How else to explain the manic focus on proving that torture did not contribute to the search for bin Laden? It suggests a kind of desperation, a desire to hold up just this one episode as separate and different from the rest of the war. This desire is Zero Dark Thirty’s true subject, as well as the object of its critique.

When the SEALs bring bin Laden’s body back to their base in Jalalabad, Maya doesn’t say anything at all. She looks bewildered, tired, and sad. When she unzips the body bag to confirm his identity, Bigelow films from roughly bin Laden’s feet. All you see is his nose popping out of the olive green bag. It has a little blood caked on it. More than anything, it looks ludicrous; the shot says, “That’s all there is.” The next morning, Maya boards an enormous, empty cargo plane. “You’re the only one on the manifest,” the pilot tells her. “You must be pretty important!” Then he asks, “Where do you want to go?” and, instead of answering, Maya begins to cry.

When Maya tells Leon Panetta that, aside from hunt bin Laden, she’s done “nothing else” for the CIA, she means the line to suggest how important she thinks that hunt has been. But Bigelow just means exactly what the words say.

What makes this War on Terror film upsetting is that it does not lie about what the War on Terror has accomplished. So much has been made of the torture scenes, but the most difficult image in the film comes near the end. Bunched up inside bin Laden’s compound, the SEALs have just killed a man and a woman, and now they have to deal with a bunch of children who are huddled together and weeping. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” one says, his voice pitched up half an octave. In the background, more gunshots. Then the SEAL cracks on a glow stick and waves it in front of the kids’ faces. They can see their parents’ bodies in the next room, but they stare at the glowing thing in front of them. They quiet down.