With Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, we have a paradigmatic war movie for a new century, a feat of asymmetric storytelling for an age of asymmetrical warfare that tells every lie in 2.5 hours that we’ve been telling ourselves for ten solid years. You’d look for a clearer looking-glass portrait of the aggregate American consciousness in vain. Researched, written, shot, edited and released within 18 months of the events it graphically depicts, the movie affects a globe-bopping, hand-held immediacy in tracing, over a full decade, the trajectory of “enhanced” interrogation, fact-finding, manhunting and eventual mobilization that resulted, in May 2011, in Osama bin Laden’s chestful of bullets. Plotwise, Bigelow and screenwriter/ex-embedded journalist Mark Boal have semi-fictionalized a young female CIA operative (played by Jessica Chastain) whose dogged and even obsessive hunt for bin Laden, even after everyone else in the agency gave up caring, eventually resulted in his bedroom assassination. Hooray for us.
As such, the movie spends much of its time tracking Chastain’s dewy bullet-head as she nags associates and bosses, partakes (gingerly) in post-torture questioning, and crunches data, a narrative thread made eventful and even crucial by the intermittent post‑9/11 terrorist attacks, failed or successful, in London, New York, Islamabad and Saudi Arabia. Which are the only context the film provides for the search for bin Laden, in ten years of history. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are mentioned only in passing and never seen. It was Bigelow’s and Boal’s express intent to simply, and “apolitically,” portray the events as the participants saw them: three feet in front of their face.
But apoliticality is a chimera, political principle is evaded only by fools, and clearly the grunt’s‑eye-view was hewn to only when convenient. When one-sided outrage over an al Qaeda car bomb is useful, that’s what we get. Bigelow’s film was controversial before anyone had even seen it, largely due to its screenplay’s explicit suggestion — apparently fictional—that detainee torture resulted in the investigative lead that in the end led the CIA to bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad. Falsely maintaining, in 2012, that the widely condemned detainee program at Guantanamo Bay and various black sites around the world was the pivotal action that allowed the 9⁄11 era to find some kind of ostensible closure — with the point-blank assassination of an elderly diabetic — isn’t merely a rebuke to Obama. It’s a sanctification of American violence.
Who’s surprised? In an ocean of Hollywood might-is-right fantasias, Bigelow’s movie only rankles because it stays so close to the ground and purports to be so faithful to reality. Each frame radiates genuineness (despite Chastain’s clumsy attempts at badassery) and dares you to question its authenticity. The movie’s cold-bloodedness is, finally, its most revealing stripe — there’s no room for “nuance.” The ambivalence and perspective and distinctive vision we get in all memorable films about war and espionage and violence, from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to The Battle of Algiers (1965) to Waltz with Bashir (2008), is totally absent, leaving only the procession of facts (and unmarked prevarications), from the harrowing 9⁄11 emergency phone-call recordings to the final dead-body shots.
This may be a hallmark of the new Asymmetrical War Film — a procedural soullessness, a forward-motion persistence to get the mission done. Indeed, Zero Dark Thirty often has the feel, and always the animating spirit, of a first-person shooter video game, as though Bigelow had directed a new edition of Call of Duty (COD). Games in this genre, and COD in particular, have reached a pop-cultural supremacy that dwarfs any film franchise, and yet there is virtually nothing to them besides run-and-gun, find and shoot. COD’s narrative (especially in its predominantly popular multiplayer mode) contains nothing that cannot be resolved by a headshot. Bigelow’s movie follows the same exact philosophy — for two and a half hours, and ten years of diegetic time, the only objective is to locate and pop. It’s not going too far, succumbing too readily to a pervasive modern anxiety, to see this simplistic homicidal function as fueling much of American life, from the Iraqi invasion itself to America’s preponderance of public mass-murder shootings, including that of December 14 — all of it confronting the complex dilemmas of contemporary living with the brute force of a fully loaded assault rifle.
But the gift of good war films, hot or cold or otherwise, is this: The humane erasure of the brute equations of jingoistic bloodlust and Manichean militarism. Significantly, video games are rarely complicated by such grace notes, and perhaps that’s why they sell hundreds of millions of copies every year. No one ever lost money catering to our inner Visigoth. Bigelow, for her part, had always before seemed open to other possibilities. However much The Hurt Locker was a remake of Top Gun transposed onto Iraq, and garnered a plethora of awards for being the tough-skinned, up-to-the-minute Asymmetrical War Film everyone apparently thought we were waiting for, the movie still percolated with doubt and contrived pathos and collateral damage.
Not so Zero Dark Thirty, which is as polished as a gun barrel, and about as complicated. No one would argue that bin Laden should’ve been spared the full brunt of the violence he helped to initiate, but it’s not too much to ask, and has never been, since the days of The Birth of a Nation, that when cinema dares to turn war into narrative spectacle, it take responsibility for the meaning and weight of its images and locates ethical questions in the carnage.
But of course in America ambivalence is for pussies, and by mid-December, Bigelow’s was already the most heavily awarded film of 2012, having netted Best Film nods from ten critics’ associations, including the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. Film critics and industry insiders, as a rule, take whatever opportunities they can to not appear to be pussies, which may be the only pertinent boot on the ground in this movie’s seemingly unstoppable march toward the ultimate cultural self-congratulation, the Oscars. But the film is essentially hollow where it should be thick with resonance and moral inquiry, and it pulls the curtain on a culture lost in its own all-purpose target range.