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Now and Then: A 'Zero Dark Thirty' Piece That's (Mostly) Not About Torture

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by Matt Brennan
January 22, 2013 1:22 PM
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Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"

We are Maya. That's the first thought that comes to mind about Jessica Chastain's tireless, obsessed CIA analyst in "Zero Dark Thirty," a "motherfucker" who's been chasing Osama bin Laden for twelve years — nearly the same length of time as this country's impossible war.

Perhaps I should be more circumspect and say only that I am Maya, passing from adolescence into adulthood under war's long shadow. 9/11 was my first day of high school, the year I turned 14, and the endless conflict in which we find ourselves is nearly as old as I was then. It has lasted almost half my life, a terrible thought. In three weeks, I will be 26. Of these strange days, along with a slew of perspicacious and talented documentarians, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have emerged as the foremost cinematic chroniclers. In "Zero Dark Thirty," as in "The Hurt Locker" (2008), the question is not how we got into the forever war. It's how we get out.

Or fail to, as the case may be. Both films, shot in terse, propulsive sequences — treading the line, maybe misleadingly, between "real" and "realist" — follow their protagonists into the rabbit hole of the past decade, tracing the human consequences of what it means always to be hunting, or hunted. In the earlier film, Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) counts down the last days of his tour in Iraq, stepping into the razor-thin space between defusing bombs and being destroyed by them. Renner's flat, slightly squashed features are perfectly suited to the intense precision of his task, but they even more powerfully convey the manic gleam of adrenaline that comes over James when faced daily with his own demise. "War is a drug," the film's epigraph reads, and it's not just James who's the addict.

Embroidering the film's tense action, the theater of war takes on a kind of alien glow, whether it's the pitiless desert in which James and his team members (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) encounter a group of British mercenaries and their human bounty, or the rough, dim barracks, in which drunken fighting and violent video games stand in temporarily for the field's potent high. When James believes Beckham, a young Iraqi boy with whom he's forged his only human connection, has been killed, his deluded quest for revenge deadens any remaining sense he might have had of a world without war.

If there is a theme that ties "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," it is the latter film's sorrowful attention to these same complications, to the price of forgetting what peace looks like. I, for one, find the accusation that the film endorses or apologizes for torture wrongheaded. The nom de guerre of bin Laden courier Abu Ahmed/Ibrahim Sayeed may be elicited through waterboarding, but it is not until after the Obama administration rejects torture — as seen in archival news footage of the President that Bigelow and Boal pause, significantly, to include — that bin Laden's location comes into focus. Indeed, in a boardroom dressing-down of his analysts, an intelligence official makes clear that years of "enhanced interrogation" have brought them "no closer" to discovering bin Laden's whereabouts. It is through agonizing footwork, from circling Peshawar to trace a cell phone signal to taking a magnifying glass to satellite imagery, that Maya arrives at the conclusion that bin Laden is in the Abbotabad compound, and feels confident advising swift action.

In "Zero Dark Thirty," torture is the dangerous addiction. Maya approaches it warily, covering her mouth in discomfort, but soon finds herself drawn into the seeming ease of it, much as James becomes gradually unmoored by his own moral compromises. In registering the fact of what we did — and it was indeed "we," who may have found it repugnant but have yet to hold its perpetrators and high-level facilitators fully to account — "Zero Dark Thirty" suggests not only the irrevocability of 9/11, its frantic phone calls and radio communiqués overheard in the film's opening moments, but also the irrevocability of Baghdad and Guantánamo, Kabul and Abu Ghraib. In its record of the eventual success of Maya's quest, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a liturgy of failures, like the passage of James' 48 days into something resembling forever.   

Because Maya, too, keeps count, marking with red ink time's forward march, and bin Laden's death turns out not to be the end of her journey, nor ours. Like the image that ends "The Hurt Locker," in which James redeploys to Iraq and recedes into the distance, a title card beginning yet another countdown, the end of "Zero Dark Thirty" suggests an eternal return of catastrophe. Alone on a military transport plane returning to Washington, Maya remains silent in the face of the pilot's final question. "Where are we going?"

Talking exclusively about torture misses the larger point: Bigelow and Boal's two collaborations retrieve from recent memory the consequences of shock and awe, and remind us of their continued presence. Both films, gorgeously wrought but always uneasy documents of the world we inhabit, seem to me striking cinematic equivalents of T.S. Eliot's terrifying line about "The awful daring of a moment's surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract."

And so the forever war goes on. Where it is going, where we are going, remains to be seen.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is now in theaters. "The Hurt Locker" is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes.

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