I don’t think there’s been a film I’ve waited for this year with more trepidation and hope than Zero Dark Thirty. It comes at the end of a triumphant year in every corner and genre of film. Looper and Prometheus reinvented sci-fi, Joss Whedon donned pistols and came to town with a vengeance, Spielberg tackled arguably our greatest president, Tom Hooper endeavored to put into film one of the most monumental works of literature, Nolan finished his Dark Knight Trilogy, and Quentin Tarantino somehow, by the grace of some blessed muse, produced Django Unchained. After this rising pantheon of titanic films, Zero Dark Thirty shocked me. It served as a solemn reminder that when films claim to tell the truth about pivotal moments in history – especially controversial moments that involve people we can still praise and blame – when films ask of their audience difficult questions, they need to first ask themselves what ends they serve and by what means.
I believe this movie scuttled itself across the back of its single opening sentence:
“Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events”
The screen fades to black and the weight of that line is impressed on us by thirty seconds of conversation recorded during the 9/11 attacks. I think about this now, and I wonder what Kathryn Bigelow meant by the horror of those voices. She certainly used a powerful tool upon her audience, however, it troubles me in the light of the controversy surrounding the truth of the film that she used this trauma as exactly that – a tool.
At the time, when I assumed that the film was telling me truths, that recording bothered me only in and of itself. It provided the seed of evidence for how and why the American people came to accept torture as a means to an end. With Maya, it demonstrates how the national consciousness mantled a single man with so much of our pride and our hate and our self doubt. Jessica Chastain plays Maya brilliantly in her brittle strength and surprising vulnerability. We watch her grow from a woman who flinches, who, not knowing anything about anything, wears a suit to torture sessions, to the most single minded and domineering character of the film. Maya knows that she can only end her obsession with its fulfillment and she’s willing to swallow the costs of it, the unsure moral decisions, the loneliness of singular vision. She can’t leave the path she’s on, she can only negotiate the road so that she hopefully doesn’t stray into dogmatic hate, or a tragic mistake, as her friend Jessica does. With Maya, the film asks many questions about us. Why do we blame a single person for so many deaths when so many people deserve that blame? What moral standards are we willing to give up to reach that person? What do we gain by destroying him in return for those standards and what, if anything, serves as a basis for satisfaction?
Before I had reasons to doubt its sincerity, I thought the film, in almost every way, was what it should have been. The operation scene was tense and weary and real. I white knuckled the seat for twenty minutes as SEAL Team 6 breached the compound and tasted the bitter irony of what most people call “a lightning operation”. Zero Dark Thirty asks necessary and brilliant questions. Now I believe we can return some of those same questions to the film itself.
A note about Truth. Normally I hold facts and Truth at arms length. Normally, actually, I think facts get in the way of Truth. However films that make a statement about real people for their actions by which we are to judge them are beholden, finally, to fact. These are real lives that we’re talking about. While it might be years before people know the real events behind the film (or never) recently the CIA issued a letter disputing the accuracy of the movie. This throws the film into a suspicious light and the mere weight of this light cracks the foundations of Zero Dark Thirty’s claims. Because the film makes such a strong claim that it is, indeed, based on the factual events of the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, and because in the course in the film we blame or praise the real people involved in the operation, I believe Bigelow commits a fallacy in the name of the worthy questions she means to ask.
I can’t know what actually happened that night at zero dark thirty so that I can weigh the film against fact. But I’m also convinced that Kathryn Bigelow can’t know what happened. She claims that she does and here is the crux of the matter. The film, by making claims it can’t support, raises moral questions that it itself falls to. Bigelow makes a fundamentally irresponsible choice to provide our feelings of justice or injustice with characters we assume reference real people. If no one knows who took part in the operation, who we have to thank or blame, then the movie shouldn’t make such a claim to truth. I would have hoped, in the face of such controversy, it would have assumed a more humble attitude. I would have hoped even more that if the film asks us to examine ourselves, what we’re really willing to do in the name of revenge or national pride or justice, it would have examined itself first. What is a film willing to do to make a moral stand? That might be worthy of another film, more sure of its facts.
It might have all been different, but for that shattering little phrase of the opening. I don’t think we’ll ever know all of the people who really can claim part of the responsibility for Osama Bin Laden’s death. At the very least, we owe them Truth, and if we can’t give that, then our silence.
My Score: 6.5