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Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar victory for The Hurt Locker (2008) represented a rare feat--the film received the coveted double gong for Best Picture and Best Director. In the process, Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, widely viewed as a progressive step forward for an industry that is often criticised for its lack of diversity. Expectations were high for Bigelow's follow-up effort, but the resultant film proved considerably more challenging and controversial than many might have expected. In purporting to offer an authentic, insider's account of the CIA's hunt for al-Qaeda founder and spiritual leader Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) makes few concessions to its viewer, both in terms of its fast-paced, jargon-heavy narrative and in its brutal depiction of the intelligence agency's use of torturous interrogation techniques. In attempting to meet the high expectations in the wake of The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty provides a compelling and challenging self-portrait that confronts audiences through what it depicts, what it obscures, what it intends to say and what it inadvertently reveals.

The film begins with a black screen, accompanied by audio of emergency calls and dispatches in the moments following the September 11 World Trade Centre attack, a formal device that borrows from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's instalment in the earlier anthology film 11'09"01: September 11 (2002). ZeroDark Thirty's prologue establishes the fragmentary sensibility that the film's narrative proper will adopt, along with its willingness to wade into difficult ethical territory around its depiction of the United States' legacy regarding international terrorism. The film follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who arrives at the American embassy in Pakistan to join the search for bin Laden (Ricky Sekhon) in the wake of 9/11.

The first hour of the film observes Maya and fellow CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogating and torturing a number of terror suspects at the agency's notorious 'black sites' as they attempt to extract information on the whereabouts of the al-Qaeda leader. Maya and Dan live their strange lives ensconced within a diplomatically autonomous zone of alternate sovereignty, acting with apparent impunity to pursue, detain and interrogate suspects while also expanding a secret network of informants. The film makes clear that, at first, Maya is uninitiated in the use of 'enhanced interrogation techniques', whereas Dan is a hardened and ruthless veteran. Eventually, Maya too becomes adept in the psychology of cruelty and manipulation. Obsessively reviewing CCTV footage, she uncovers a lead, and becomes certain that the key to bin Laden's whereabouts resides with his courier, rumoured to go by the name of Abu Ahmed (Tushaar Mehra). When Maya's sole friend, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), is suddenly killed in the suicide bombing of US base Camp Chapman in Afghanistan, she strengthens her resolve to see her mission through. Surviving an attack herself after her identity is compromised, Maya returns from Pakistan to the United States. As the investigation continues, she believes that she has uncovered the identity of Abu Ahmed, and the CIA uses surveillance technology and informants to track the courier to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which Maya believes houses bin Laden. Her superiors are unconvinced that the intelligence is accurate, but nonetheless authorise a Special Operations raid on the compound. The mission is a success, bin Laden is killed and, after personally identifying his corpse, Maya boards a military plane, where the usually unflappable analyst is overcome with emotion.

The film that would become Zero Dark Thirty was originally intended to cover the unsuccessful December 2001 military raid on the Afghani Tora Bora cave complex suspected to house bin Laden. However, real-world events very quickly overtook the project. After the al-Qaeda leader was assassinated in May 2011, Bigelow and her Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal shelved their Tora Bora project and decided instead to use parts of that screenplay for an all-new project depicting the hunt for bin Laden, culminating in his killing. (1) The project went into production quickly through Annapurna Pictures, which is known for financing commercially risky, often politically challenging films including Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012) and The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012); the fact that the company's founder, Megan Ellison, is the daughter of American billionaire Larry Ellison perhaps helps explain how a film as commercially unlikely as Zero Dark Thirty was able to find its financing. (2) In discussing the development of the project, both Bigelow and Boal are keen to stress their pursuit of realism and authenticity: in a featurette on the Zero Dark Thirty DVD, Boal talks about collaborating with former military consultants, (3) while another featurette demonstrates the lengths the production went to in re-creating bin Laden's compound in its entirety as a free-standing structure with no fake walls or removable parts. (4) 'When [Bigelow] and I first met, we both agreed that the film was to look absolutely authentic,' says production designer Jeremy Hindle. (5)

In this respect, Zero Dark Thirty is reminiscent of The Hurt Locker, which was similarly praised for its pseudo-documentary realism. Stylistically, the two films mirror each other, employing rapid cutting, frantic handheld camerawork and frenzied zooms to convey an intense sense of immediacy. In The Hurt Locker, these effects convey the laser-like focus of Jeremy Renner's bomb-disposal technician William James. The effect is similar in Zero Dark Thirty, as, indeed, is the single-minded determination of Chastain's Maya. Nevertheless, the surrounding narrative context is substantially different. The Hurt Locker achieves its hyperreal sense of suspense by stripping away the surrounding geopolitical context--the notion of warfare is bound up in the film's proximity to character, conveying the subjective intensity of James' focus while extracting tension from the possibility that death may arrive at any moment. In Zero Dark Thirty, the stakes are naturally altered, as the film is inevitably coloured by our knowledge of the historical events depicted. It is difficult to imagine that anybody would watch the film without knowing that it must conclude with bin Laden's killing. Perhaps this generates an extra-textual element of morbid curiosity, with the viewer wondering precisely how the moment will be dramatised. Bigelow has acknowledged this quandary, stating:

The story was challenging because everybody knows the ending but nobody knows how we got there, and the events themselves were extremely dramatic, so it added a kind of inherent tension to the piece. (6)

Rather than the film leaving the audience wondering how the film will end, narrative engagement emerges from Chastain's portrayal of Maya, as well as from the question of how she will overcome the odds and find the proverbial needle in the haystack, the global fugitive she is pursuing. Knowing that the film followed on the heels of the director's Academy Award victory--a symbolic rebuke to Hollywood's longstanding gender inequality--viewers may be tempted to read Maya as an analogue for Bigelow herself. Both women, it seems, are required to exert their worth in male-dominated professional spheres by becoming tougher than the rest. For Bigelow, this takes the form of hyper-competent genre filmmaking, while Maya, surrounded by hyper-masculine bros oft spouting vulgarity, feels obliged to adopt a similar tone when meeting with the CIA director (James Gandolfini) for the first time--when asked who she is, Maya replies, 'I'm the motherfucker who found [bin Laden's hiding] place,' a remark that is met with disdain and baleful judgement by her brutish and bullying male counterparts. Yet, to succeed, Maya must become like them, hounding her emasculated superior George (Mark Strong) by charting the number of days of CIA inaction in following her lead on bin Laden's whereabouts by writing them on his office window and aggressively pounding on the glass.

Such self-conscious playing with gender conventions and sexuality has long been a hallmark of Bigelow's work, present in the glossy 1980s stylisation of Near Dark (1987), the homoeroticism of Point Break (1991) and the libertine dystopia of Strange Days (1995). When Maya shows up wearing black clothes and aviator sunglasses at the base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, late in Zero Dark Thirty, she recalls the swaggering line cut by Jamie Lee Curtis' tough cop in Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990). A study of obsessive hyper-competence, Maya must become better at her job than any man, achieving the goal that her many male counterparts could not. As such, her character appears as a provocative feminist statement, never mind the dubious morality of her core business. While Maya may be a fictional composite, Bigelow has stated that her real-life origins are part of what drew the director to the project: What was extremely surprising to me was to learn that there were women that played pivotal parts in this hunt.' (7)

Tellingly, Maya's few opportunities for solidarity come when she bonds with the rare female fellow travellers she encounters in this brutal domain; for instance, the clue that tips them off that Abu Ahmed is still alive is uncovered by a fellow young woman, who has come to Pakistan inspired by Maya's aspirational figure. Elsewhere, Maya and Jessica share a rare moment of respite over wine, though Maya does get through the film without acquiring a heterosexual love interest, as may have been deemed narratively necessary in a less uncompromising telling of this story. Maya operates as something of an audience surrogate--not simply because of her position at the centre of the narrative, but also because the film clearly establishes her as a woman without a past. When she meets with the CIA director over a humble cafeteria lunch late in the film, she reveals that she was headhunted by the organisation directly out of high school; accordingly, these institutions are all she's ever known. An effective blank slate at the start of the film, Maya is as confronted as we are when exposed to Dan's torturous methods; gradually, however, we watch her become inured to her horror, eventually insisting that Dan push his prisoners even further.

Bigelow's ambivalent deployment of extreme violence will not surprise those who have followed her filmmaking. Strange Days uses its virtual-reality conceit to force the viewer to vicariously experience a sexual assault through the eyes of the perpetrator, while Detroit (2017) reduces simmering racial animus and police brutality to a house of horrors that proved too shocking for many viewers. Zero Dark Thirty, likewise, demands that its audience confront the ethics of spectatorship. Maya's position as audience surrogate means we must also spend much of the first sixty minutes of the film observing with her the torture of detainees, along with her hope that extreme degradations (sleep deprivation, ritual humiliations, dog collars and waterboarding) will yield crucial information.

In a formal sense, the perspective of Zero Dark Thirty remains similar to that of The Hurt Locker--both films are perceptually bound to their protagonists, and resolutely deny Arab characters personhood or subjectivity. In The Hurt Locker, this is in service of elevating suspense, as combat becomes a decontextualised existential abstraction of life and death; US academic David Fresko writes that the film's 'universalist themes ("life and death, courage and manhood, war and human nature") [...] make the invasion [of Iraq] appear an historical inevitability'. (8) Rare instances in which the film does crosscut to Iraqis racing to or from explosive sites only further ramp up suspense, while the character of the Iraqi child Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) is merely a narrative foil of sorts, representing the sole site of emotional engagement for Renner's protagonist. In Zero Dark Thirty, context is too important to ignore, as the film is haunted by the absent spectre of bin Laden; thus, the film's ethical perspective becomes more challenging and ambivalent.

The depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty proved to be the film's most controversial aspect upon the film's release. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek penned a prominent missive against the film, claiming that, just as Maya's character overcomes her initial visceral repulsion at witnessing torture and later becomes a complicit, desensitised participant in such acts, so too does the detached, realist aesthetic mode of the film render the horrors of torture ideologically palatable. (9) Assuming that spectators identify with what we see on screen, what can we make of the abjection of torture, as the film routinely dehumanises and discards an undifferentiated parade of terror suspects before our eyes? Can a film present such material without necessarily endorsing it, or does the narrative framework of a goal-based pursuit dramatically sanction torture as a means that necessarily justifies an end? In an open letter to the Los Angeles Times responding to the controversy around the film, Bigelow wrote that 'those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement', (10) but these challenging questions are nonetheless problematised by Bigelow's self-conscious pursuit of authenticity in her race to inscribe the hunt for bin Laden into cinematic history. The suite of behind-the-scenes featurettes on the Zero Dark Thirty DVD reveals Bigelow and her collaborators to be in thrall to their military technical advisers, as the documentary camera surveys military gear, firearms and night-vision equipment with a fetishising lens. Chris Pratt, who appears late in the film as one of the Special Ops soldiers involved in the compound raid, speaks in the Geared Up featurette of the project's pursuit of military authenticity, while being careful to differentiate himself and his creative collaborators from the venerated troops:

It's important that we take real care and real concern to tell the truth about what happened. They don't do what they do so that we can make movies about it. They do what they do because it has to be done, and someone has to step up to do it. (11)

In the same featurette, Bigelow speaks of her responsibility to the military and intelligence personnel depicted in the film, stating that

there's so much of that community that is obscure to the general public. I really looked at [the film] as a tribute to those people on the operation who work in the shadows. (12)

Such statements may contradict the sentiment of Bigelow's open letter to the presumably liberal-leaning readership of the Los Angeles Times, but they do not alter her views about the tension between that which is depicted and the moral stance of the work itself. In its unflinching pursuit of realism, Zero Dark Thirty places in stark relief the incontrovertible fact that state-sanctioned torture was conducted in aid of the performative, retributive extrajudicial killing of bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty's narrow perspective adopts the geopolitical assumption that 9/11 was an aberration that needed to be corrected, and leaves no room to canvass the larger role that imperial American incursions into the Middle East played in destabilising the region and fomenting such hostility in the first place. The default position of so many Hollywood blockbusters is one of unquestioned American exceptionalism, propagated in stylised military fantasies like Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) and Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001). Zero Dark Thirty momentarily slips into such a mode of aestheticisation, adopting strident, militaristic non-diegetic music as the Special Ops forces head off on their tactical raid. Yet, even here, the film proffers yet more ambiguity at odds with its slick mode of depiction: the operation itself is very nearly botched, as so much of the hunt for bin Laden was, with one of the stealth helicopters crashing during the raid. Nevertheless, bin Laden is indeed at the stronghold, and is quickly dispatched in a matter-of-fact manner that is so dramatically downplayed that you may miss it if you blink. His body is returned to Maya at the military base, and she gazes upon the grim bounty that she has received in exchange for her years of obsession. Writing of this rare long take in an otherwise relentlessly edited film, historian Richard Gid Powers argues that it forms an emotionally void anticlimax: that, at the end of their parallel journeys, bin Laden has lost his life, but, in the process, 'sucked the blood of life out of' his adversary, Maya. (13) In a DVD featurette, Chastain makes a similar observation of Maya's character arc:

As she becomes consumed with finding Osama bin Laden, we see her start to lose the self that she arrived with and become something else. And, at the end of the movie, it's almost like she doesn't know who she is anymore. (14)

Both Powers and Chastain observe something pyrrhic in the concluding image of the two-and-a-half-hour-long film, with the protagonist flying alone in an empty cargo plane. Yet, while the film may end with a personal moment, Bigelow's grand historical canvas invites allegorical interpretations. Powers writes of Maya at the film's conclusion: 'If she represents America, as heroes do in these mythic films, what does it say about our war on terror and about ourselves?' (15) To take his question further, we may want to invite some further self-reflection, particularly as international viewers raised on a diet of American popular cinema: Zero Dark Thirty holds up a mirror to Hollywood ideology, and it is possible that we may not like the reflection that we see.

Nicholas Godfrey is a lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University, and the author of The Limits of Auteurism: Case Studies in the Critically Constructed New Hollywood.


(1) Richard Gid Powers, 'Zero Dark Thirty', The Journal of American History, vol. 100, no. 1, June 2013, p. 303.

(2) See Brent Lang & Matt Donnelly, 'As Annapurna Stumbles, Billionaire Larry Ellison Exerts Control', Variety, 10 October 2018, <>, accessed 20 March 2019.

(3) Mark Boal, in the featurette Geared Up, Zero Dark Thirty DVD, Icon Films, 2013, available at <>, accessed 20 March 2019.

(4) See the featurette The Compound, Zero Dark Thirty DVD, op. cit., available at <>, accessed 20 March 2019.

(5) Jeremy Hindle, in ibid.

(6) Kathryn Bigelow, in the featurette No Small Feat, Zero Dark Thirty DVD, op. cit., available at <>, accessed 20 March 2019.

(7) ibid.

(8) David Fresko, 'Aesthetics of Politics: Zero Dark Thirty', In Visible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture, issue 19, Fall 2013, available at <>, accessed 20 March 2019.

(9) Slavoj Zizek, 'Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood's Gift to American Power', The Guardian, 26 January 2013, <>, accessed 20 March 2019.

(10) Kathryn Bigelow, 'Kathryn Bigelow Addresses Zero Dark Thirty Torture Criticism', Los Angeles Times, 15 January 2013, <>, accessed 20 March 2019.

(11) Chris Pratt, in the featurette Geared Up, op. cit.

(12) Kathryn Bigelow, in ibid.

(13) Powers, op. cit., p. 304.

(14) Jessica Chastain, in the featurette Targeting Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty DVD, op. cit., available at <>, accessed 20 March 2019.

(15) Powers, op. cit., p. 305.
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Author:Godfrey, Nicholas
Publication:Screen Education
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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