After seeing Zero Dark Thirty as part of my annual Best Picture nominee binge, I exited the theater with just one thought on my mind: I’d hate to be a guy trying to start a new country in this day and age.
It’s a fun daydream, wondering what it would be like to find a deserted island no one’s yet claimed, plant a flag, invite a few friends to be charter citizens, and then declaring yourselves the new sovereign nation of YourNameHereLand. You build at least one impressive building to house your government. You write your own constitution that justifies everything you’ll ever want to do and lays down basic ground rules to protect you from any future jerks who emigrate inside your borders or grow up inside your school system. You figure out how your economy should function, discern your people’s industrial skill sets, plan for necessary imports, form relationships with all the right countries, fill out the proper UN forms, and you’re off and running. You could probably find how-to guides on the Internet that fill in your knowledge gaps, complete with instructional YouTube videos. How cool would that be?
Long-term answer: sooner or later, not very. Eventually someone in the world will disagree with something you do or don’t do, and decide you and yours need to be terrorized. All kinds of rationalizations could justify them threatening the lives of countless innocent YourNameHereLandians. Maybe it’s because your idea of peace and harmony isn’t based on the correct version of God. Your industries perform too well and accumulate a noticeable cash flow that begs for a looting. You’re planted firmly between their country and a large, untapped oil reserve. Your skin is the wrong color. You’re small and they’re a fat bully. They’re jealous of your unionized sweatshops. Whatever the case may be, as soon as you’re noticed for the wrong reasons, peacetime is over and your dream country has few response choices: surrender and conform; protest non-violently and prepare to become scorched earth; or defend itself. Few people ever dream that part of the dream-country scenario. They usually declare their dream perfect and complete once they get to the part where all their citizens spend seven nights a week chugging alcohol on the moonlit beach.
How much effort should your country expend to defend itself? Would pouring all your efforts into brute force be sufficient? How complicated an intelligence network would you need to establish in order to handle today’s warfare styles? If someone struck at the heart of your people and a demand for justice was in order (or revenge, depending on your government’s character alignment), how far would you be willing to order your people to go? Questions like these can be unsettling for the average armchair politician to contemplate. Personally, I have no interest in being the guy that decides who lives or dies.
In Zero Dark Thirty, director/producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal deliver their harrowing vision of how the United States responded to those questions during one of its two most notorious military manhunts in the last twenty years. The movie sets the stage with sobering, audio-only excerpts from 9/11/2001 communications as reminders of Why We Fight Now, then follows CIA agent Maya (an intense Jessica Chastain) over the course of years in her job role as head pursuer of one Mr. bin Laden. As obstacles mount and investigative roads lead to dead ends, her job becomes a quixotic quest, which all but gives way to furious obsession. Her frustration with resource shortage and uncooperative bureaucracies culminate in her scariest scene in which she fulminates and rages against all the machines — personified by Kyle Chandler as her boss/scapegoat of the moment — with a wild-eyed fervor that in other movies is usually followed by a heart attack.
Much has been written elsewhere about the focus of the first act, the torture techniques implemented to extract information from key captives. I’ll admit to being disturbed by the depictions of shackling, pummeling, food deprivation, hot-box lockups, all-night volume-10 death-metal marathons, and other shameful actions, all conducted with benign professionalism by a guy named Dan (Jason Clarke) who’d love to talk more with them over a beer or two if only it weren’t for this nagging war on terrorism. To be honest, as an American moviegoer more desensitized than I wish I were, those moments weren’t as shocking as I’d expected. If you didn’t flinch at the slave torture in Django Unchained, I have a hard time believing Zero Dark Thirty would raise your eyebrow. I do appreciate that those scenes weren’t designed as torture-porn for shallow thrill-seekers, at least.
What I found even more disturbing were the results from those tribulations. Several scenes later, the initial torture subject is re-clothed, cleaned up, invited to share a full meal with his captors, and obligingly answers every single question he’s asked. Maya and company dispense with the overt threats and take notes while chatting. Subsequent encounters with a few other inmates skip the torture altogether, instead showing us men already cooperating with our side, doubtlessly because they’ve undergone and been broken by those same agonies. Their serene compliance somehow spooked and concerned me more than the nightmarish process itself, with its implication that hey, aren’t we all glad that’s over. Now we can all just get along!
Make no mistake: the movie doesn’t coddle the other side or try to convince us they were merely misunderstood. A mass shooting of civilians, a hotel bombing, and a devastating incident at a military base are among the strongest scenes dispelling any accusations of sugar-coating on the filmmakers’ part. No one here argues that al-Qaeda’s actions were morally defensible. Regardless, the movie’s overall structure predicates that all the follow-up info gathering, Maya’s shrewd deductions, tracking of additional persons of interest, Mark Strong’s authoritative histrionics, determination of surveillance targets, and eventual covert ops in the movie’s back half would never have happened without the info gleaned from all that needful torture. It’s an elegant construct whose pieces are all painted in shades of grey, some uglier than others.
Even the climactic set piece in now-famous Abbottabad isn’t quite the jingoistic payback one would expect from an ordinary war film. While Maya retreats to desk-job shadows with her part of the plan completed, the movie switches largely to found-footage mode via Seal Team Six Helmet-Cam. Black helicopters transport the likes of Joel Edgerton, Andy Dwyer from Parks & Recreation, and Henry Francis from Mad Men to soldier into the compound, eliminate Public Enemy #1, and abscond with as much intel as they can carry. Unlike the average ’80s Schwarzenegger movie, Our Villain’s live-in companions aren’t all brawny militia nutjobs with giant guns and poor aim; they include a few hysterical women and many unarmed children. Though not all the women escape unscathed, the children are gathered into a single bedroom while the adults, um, settle their differences elsewhere. Dozens of neighbors in this well-to-do Pakistani tourist town also gather ’round the property to gawk and make the Seals feel self-conscious about their work. This ostensible moment of victory doesn’t exactly invite the theater audience to link arms and begin singing America’s favorite Lee Greenwood tune.
Though there’s no scene after the Zero Dark Thirty end credits, it’s worth noting that the usual disclaimer about “any resemblance to persons living or dead, etc.,” is twice as long as usual, and freely admits some people or events were not necessarily 100% painstakingly recreated with the exacting detail of scale-model dollhouse furniture. Whether you believe the movie presents the absolute unvarnished truth that The MAN didn’t want you to know, or biased propaganda intended to brainwash you personally, may affect your perception and opinion of it. I thought it was a high-functioning military thriller that refused to take its subject at face value, dug deeper to ask questions that hurt to ask, and provoked me out of my comfort zone a little more than the other nominees have so far.
If nothing else, it’s dissuaded me from the daydream-nation game for good. Imagining yourself as ruler of your own magical country is a lot less fun when you know what it apparently takes to sustain a real one.