Just as Robert Duncan chastised Denise Levertov (ultimately ending his friendship with her over the Vietnam War) by stating that the task of poetry is not to oppose evil, but imagine it, so Bigelow and her writer/co-producer Mark Boal are asking audiences to take their depiction of torture as part of the moral darkness of the war on terror – a necessary, if regrettable, part of it. Yet Zero Dark Thirty never shows us the personal cost of that darkness as its incurred by the professionals waging that war. Nor does it dwell on what it means for a putative democracy to operate as an empire. It never truly imagines evil. Instead it imagines the bureaucratic response to evil, which is a kind of evil itself -- understood not as a theological category, but in the sense Adorno means by the phrase "radical evil," which he uses to describe the totally administered society whose aim is to eradicate all traces of subjective freedom, right down to the very thoughts one thinks.
The problem, as David Bromwich details at The Huffington Post, is that in ZDT's naïve zeal for an “absolute” adherence to the facts, it erases or represses the enormous moral question that occupies the center of the hunt for Bin Laden, rendering a manhunt into a referendum on metaphysical values. Bigelow stresses how she wanted a “boots-on-the ground” feel to the movie, a kind of bracketing off of the more complex problems raised by how the CIA conducted its investigation in order to focus on the procedure itself. This places an enormous burden on the notion of factuality that is, finally, insupportable. “Boots on the ground” has become a code phrase for some kind of ungainsayable authenticity, perhaps akin to what Walter Benjamin called Erlebnesse—the immediate shock of experience. But since experience only becomes "experience" after its been processed (i.e. after it becomes "Erfahrung") this appeal to the authentic raises some thorny questions about how the authentic is determined. It also masks what those boots are doing on the ground in the first place, namely, carrying out national policy.
Bigelow and Boal’s approach produces an extraordinary sense of immediacy as it compresses the years-long search for Bin Laden into a harrowing and intense movie, but in the process of creating that intensity it also generates an appalling lack of perspective, an ethical vacuum. By refusing to take a position on American foreign policy, (in this, it follows The Hurt Locker, a film that had far less at stake, morally), ZDT’s procedural ethos is not the tribute to professionalism Bigelow and Boal imagine it to be, but a morally empty film that is, by default, complicit with the reckless and arrogant exercise of American geopolitical power.
The thing is – and this is what all the critics have missed – is that Bigelow has never been a filmmaker of ideas. She is concerned above all with moments of intensity and shock. This cinema of adrenaline and extremity (which I’ve addressed more sympathetically in my post on The Hurt Locker) runs through any number of her films, in particular Blue Steel, Point Break, The Hurt Locker and Strange Days. Indeed, this last film, I would argue, is still her most violently disturbing because of how she frames its extreme degree of self-reflexivity. (Its infamous rape scene invites comparison to ZDT’s raid on Bin Laden’s compound for its use of POV composition).
Zero Dark Thirty in other words is immersive cinema: it’s meant to engulf us, to take us completely into its world, the world of espionage and torture and dangerous dirty but necessary work whose participants seemingly never suffer from questions of self-doubt, much less stop to examine their mistakes at the procedural level. Developing a sophisticated moral point of view is simply not its concern. Case in point: the potent scene where Mark Strong tongue-lashes a roomful of cowed agents, including Maya, by screaming about how “we’re spending billions” and getting nowhere. The movie makes no room for a point of view that might question whether those billions were being improperly spent on things like the invasion of Iraq, rather than hunting down Bin Laden. The scene is important because the camera lingers over Maya’s reaction to this tirade: there’s no self-doubt, only a flicker of emotion that signals a resolve to recommit to the quest.
At the risk of mixing personal anecdote with textual analysis I’ll offer what seems to me a telling moment. When Mark Boal visited Amherst College two years ago, fresh off the triumph of The Hurt Locker, he gave an entertaining, if rather rambling, account of how he researched the film. (He also defensively parried smart questions about the film’s troubling politics). His most revealing remark about where his allegiances lay came when, pointedly addressing the faculty seated in the front row, he opined, apropos of no instigation whatsoever, that “the military was not going away, whatever you folks might think.” Plainly we Ivory Tower types lived in some kind of liberal fantasy land for him.
Boal’s macho militarism has made him something of a stooge for realpolitik. It certainly has played into Bigelow’s desire for a cinema of intensity. While this produced powerful results in The Hurt Locker, in ZDT the combination is ethically disastrous. The Hurt Locker was a film about shock that redeemed its depictions of violence by asking us to reflect on shock’s melancholy wages. It was also, like Strange Days, a film heavily invested in cinematic self-reflexivity. But it’s difficult to make the same claims for Zero Dark Thirty because its main character, Maya, is so opaque, almost a cipher, empty of all personal meaning, existing purely in the service of a cause. If there’s an ironic connection to be made between this subject position and that of her ideologically-driven opponents, the film never sees fit to even imply it. This moral vacuity, this utter lack of interiority, is far more troubling than the torture scenes, which merely show what results from such an emptiness.
This makes the final scene of the film difficult to read. It’s here that it wants to redeem everything it's depicted before. As tears slowly roll down Maya’s face, in medium close up, we’re not sure who or what it is she’s crying for: For herself? For her fallen comrades? For the 9/11 dead? From a kind of mortal exhaustion that carries with it a moral hazard? Are they the tears of redemptive release, suppressed for so long and now finally being shed in a moment of real feeling because the battle’s been won? Even her vulnerability poses questions about opacity. It invites us into the enigma of her personal agon. That this moment refuses to yield to a single reading gestures toward a moral complexity it hasn't really earned, though it does move in the direction of justifying the claims Bigelow makes for it.
Bigelow's immersive cinema of intensity makes her essentially a-political. This is her guiding ethos; her politics, inasmuch as she has one, is formalist. But it’s also why she’ll never be a truly great master, ala Ford or Kurosawa. For if intensity is not matched by an attempt to redeem suffering then all it can do is show us how things happen, without ever touching on what meanings we give them. By being so ruthlessly faithful to events, the film has made itself blind to history. Given this, it’s easy to see that ZDT’s raison d’etre is not the vindication of 9/11 or even its avenging heroine, but the extended sequence that is the raid on Abbottabad. This sequence is perhaps the finest thing Bigelow has ever done, absolutely gripping in its pacing and focus, and haunting to watch unfold.
Yet it’s hard not think of the sequence as a case of the tail wagging the dog. And it’s even harder to know how to feel about the murdered women and the dispossessed children in these scenes. It’s here that the film does succeed, I think, in spite of my earlier reservations, in depicting the moral cost of war. The viewer is implicated in the consequences of the raid in a way that the SEALS are not and cannot be. The cutting back and forth between the POV night-vision goggles and the more objective actual-light camera angles, though still highly subjective, enacts this reflexive dynamic. Are the survivors bad people? Innocent? Or simply bystanders? Perhaps this is one reason for Maya’s tears. This may be a generous reading of a troubling film. But I want it to be true.
All of this is difficult for me to write because of my personal connection to Bigelow, whom I worked for in the early 90s. I will always feel a stubborn devotion to her as a person and a deep loyalty to her profound gifts as a filmmaker. My gut on this is that ZDT will eventually come to be seen as a film that told some very real and very unpleasant truths about how the real world really works. God help us all.