I don’t remember where I was when I heard bin Laden was killed. I do remember I first saw it on the Internet. When the towers fell in 2001, I watched it on TV, which I think is a difference that expresses something profound about how our world changed in the ten years between 9/11 and SEAL Team Six’s assassination of Osama bin Laden. Now, the majority of our news is received via computer, and it’s consumed quickly rather than experienced fully. I know there was a general hubbub on Twitter and Facebook following bin Laden’s death, and conversations of excitement and morality and justice filled the next few days, but within a few days it died out, because the conversations didn’t really match the weight of the event. The pundits and talking heads considered and pontificated, same as it ever was, but they were done in less than a week. We never really got to the bottom of what his death meant for America’s identity in today’s world and for America’s future. Zero Dark Thirty provides a sobering opportunity to do just that.
You might expect a movie about the hit on bin Laden to be about the Navy SEALs that carried it out, but director Kathryn Bigelow has instead given us a movie very focused on one woman. That woman is Maya (Jessica Chastain), based on an agent who is still undercover. The movie begins as she joins a CIA team already in the process of looking through the whole haystack. She sits in on several sessions of torture carried out by Dan (Jason Clarke), who tries to show her the ropes. She catches on quickly, and rapidly becomes one of the key members of the team.
Maya is one of the few people on the team to trust instinctively in the team’s leads. Maybe this is because, more than anyone else on the team, the mission is her life. Maya can’t second guess, because it would mean second guessing her life’s work. She is encouraged more than once to loosen up and to, you know, actually have a life. But Bigelow and her cast and crew seem to be insinuating that it was exactly that kind of tenacity that led us to the point where we could feasibly take out the most wanted terrorist in the world.
The torture is as intense as you’ve probably heard. It’s not gory, but it is psychologically affecting. I don’t know what you’ve heard about the torture in this movie, but the movie neither condones nor condemns it. By the end of the movie, you’ve convinced yourself torture was essential to find bin Laden. The CIA denies this actually happened, and they tried to create some bad press for the movie. Is it that hard to believe the CIA used torture to get their hands on anything that even sounded like a lead? Even agents of democracy are capable of evil if they’re human.
But even while I can make comments like that now, I found myself accepting the torture as a given when I watched the movie. A crucial source was being waterboarded, and I found myself thinking, “Good. We need to get bin Laden,” even as I cringed while he gasped for air. Zero Dark Thirty taps into our culture’s passive acceptance that awful things happen in this world. I read that hundreds of Syrians die in a day, and I click to the next headline. We hear that bin Laden has been taken care of, and, in the name of America, we make ourselves okay with an act we would normally consider immoral.
Don’t read me wrong here; I know justice needed to be served. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans. In turn, we took his life. I just hate that our sin has created a world where being okay with that is almost necessary.
Maya does not fall in with the majority of us “passive acceptance” types. She has tunnel vision for destroying this man, and for somehow righting the wrongs he caused. The final sequence following SEAL Team Six into bin Laden’s compound is riveting. It’s reminiscent of Argo; we know what’s going to happen, but we can’t look away anyway. Except, with Argo, there was catharsis. Bigelow wisely doesn’t allow us catharsis here; we had that when he really died, and now it’s time to really consider it. The final shot is perfect. So we killed him. What on earth do we do now?
There are few movies in the past decade that so perfectly capture the real face of our culture on film. Some recent examples: No Country for Old Men, Up in the Air, The Social Network. Now add Zero Dark Thirty to the list. When it was over, my fiancée turned to me and said, “It’s amazing that these kinds of things are happening in the world.” Yeah. Yeah it is.