“Your Detainee Will See You Now”
Grade: A- (SEE IT)
NOW WHAT? SUCH was the sentiment that snuck up and surprised any viewer of “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s last film on war and soldier psychology. Recall Jeremy Renner, as the leader of a bomb disposal team in the Iraq war, returning home after his last rotation. Oh how the mighty have fallen: he’s become a dad dispatched to get groceries. We watch as a dazed Army Sergeant wanders a sterile-looking supermarket, looking out-of-place and bored by civilian life. The epigraph for that film came from Chris Hedges, a war correspondent at The New York Times: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Of course, “The Hurt Locker” ends with its hero back where he belongs, on the battlefield, but it’s hard to root for Army Sergeant William James when his resolution is likened to addiction. Is this, then, a work of propaganda or pacifistic satire?
With “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow’s first film since the Oscar-winning “Locker,” she stays in the (war) zone and expands her interest in America’s battles abroad and the addictive highs and lows they enable. A similar air of futility hangs over the action of “ZDT.” Here, we have a heroine, a CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who vows “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.” That revenge killing, which occupies 40 of the film’s 157 minutes, is certainly its climax, but the road to that now legendary raid on Bin Laden’s compound in the Pakastani city of Abbottabad, is where “ZDT” largely dwells. This is a film, controversially so, that gives us the interrogation rooms, torture chambers, and “black sites” that made the night of May 2nd, 2011 and the heroic efforts of SEAL Team 6, possible. At the same time, “ZDT” asks whether all of those closed-door procedures were really worth it? The film may end with a mission accomplished, but there is seemingly nothing but a string of defeats and detonations along the way.
At its core, “ZDT” traces the metamorphosis of a friendless, work-obsessed Maya. At the start, she’s only an ambivalent participant in the waterboarding of a suspect, Ammar (Reda Kateb), an Arab man with known ties to al-Qaeda bank accounts. Up until the final scene, she’s as cold as ice. Bigelow’s writing partner, Mark Boal, is again on hand to pepper the script with intel of a different kind: “Everybody breaks – it’s biology,” says CIA field agent Dan (Jason Clarke) as he systematically destroys the mind and body of his detainee. Much of “ZDT” is hard to watch – beyond the torture, there’s the suspenseful scene in which a Jordanian with information regarding bin Laden’s whereabouts slowly penetrates the bunkers of an American base – and when it’s all over, the viewer is again faced with the uncertainties that define a potentially un-winnable war against terrorism. All that we know for certain is what Maya believes must be the case: an electronically cut-off bin Laden must be communicating with a courier named Abu Ahmed. Catch the courier and catch the killer of 3,000 plus Americans.
If not for the ambiguous final shot of “Zero Dark Thirty,” it would be far easier to allege that Bigelow’s latest is on par with John Wayne’s “The Green Berets” (1968), a pep rally for the Vietnam War. I, for one, am deeply discomforted by the idea that real-life works of American militarism can be turned immediately into a mainstream movie; this only further blurs the line between war and entertainment in an era of “Call of Duty” and “Six Days in Fallujah.” As Adorno and Horkheimer wrote after World War 2, “real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.” But Bigelow spares us hawkish politics for something more sly, more cynical. The only time we even hear President Obama speaking is when he’s giving an interview to “60 Minutes” and denouncing torture in a film that unflinchingly puts America’s torture of Muslim prisoners on display. In the foreground are Maya and her fellow operatives, barely listening to their boss on the boob-tube; the suggestion is that they operate outside the law. That exposes the official, albeit hypocritical, stance of the White House, and by extension, the nation at large, for what it really is: just noise.
Potentially, the real torture in “Zero Dark Thirty” lies not in those excruciatingly cruel interrogation scenes but in Chastain’s final expression. What is Maya thinking exactly? Is it relief or remorse? With the hunt over, tears fall and if our heroine isn’t thinking “Now what?”, she may have something even more radical, even more un-American, on her mind, which is: What for?