The ensuing controversy hit fever pitch. Is ZDT a nearly journalistic work? Is it morally repugnant propaganda?
Mostly, it is a work of resolute, perhaps maddening, ambivalence. New to DVD fresh from winning only one (Best Sound Editing) of its five Academy Award nominations, ZDT details a remarkable manhunt in which horrific things occurred, but our reactions to what unfolds on-screen are far from clear-cut.
The approach is evident in the opening minutes, with an aural collage of real-life emergency scanner traffic and cellphone calls from Sept. 11, 2001. That sonic assault is abruptly followed by a scene, two years later, in which an al-Qaida detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb, A Prophet) is subjected to brutal torture at the hands of a CIA operative (Jason Clarke, Lawless) who looks more like a coffeehouse barista than a sadist.
It is worth noting that the movie is much more than the uproar that surrounded it in theaters. Our protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain, The Help), tirelessly works to track down a mystery man, known as Abu Ahmed, whom she believes is bin Laden’s favorite courier. The search stretches from military bases in Afghanistan to secret prisons in Europe, from a Lamborghini dealership in Kuwait and, finally, to a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the Navy SEAL Team 6 operation that killed bin Laden.
With painstakingly created suspense disguised by a naturalistic, almost documentarian feel, the film is a dazzling CIA procedural. The narrative is smart and engrossing, and it builds to a third act, the May 2011 killing of bin Laden, that is gripping in spite of our knowing how things will end.
Chastain is tremendous as the single-minded agent. Her Maya is tough, driven and seemingly without a personal life. “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job,” she tells a colleague in the wake of another terrorist attack. ZDT has assembled a strong cast throughout — particularly Clarke, Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) and Mark Strong (John Carter) — but it hinges on Chastain’s credibility. And she delivers.
Still, the question remains: Does the film condone torture? Does it condemn it? Is it even accurate? This is more than a matter of mere academics. Truth in art does matter, especially if history is twisted to support morally dicey propositions. Birth of a Nation, anyone?
But the answers are shrouded by an ambiguity that amounts to a sort of Rorschach test for moviegoers. Ammar (whom Bigelow and Boal say is a composite) reveals a critical piece of information, the name of bin Laden’s courier, after he has been worn down by torture. But the name he gives up is an alias; Abu Ahmad’s real identity, as ZDT points out, is uncovered through channels that don’t involve U.S. interrogation.
In the end, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t scrutinize the morality of what happened — or the effectiveness or necessity of torture, for that matter. But torture by U.S. personnel, like the succession of al-Qaida terrorist attacks that followed 9/11, is part of the historical record. The film chronicles — expertly, thrillingly, profoundly — these events. —Phil Bacharach