The Many Interpretations of Zero Dark Thirty

zero dark thirty maya

One of the reasons I love reading film criticism (which, of course, is what’s leading me to try my hand in dabbling in it, for anyone who’s being indulging enough to read this shit) is that it can often help clarify my thoughts after seeing a particular movie. And more than usual, Zero Dark Thirty left me unsure of what to think of it.

It’s no doubt a powerful film, with lots of material that’s difficult to sit through – a chilling, heartbreaking use of real emergency calls from 9/11 victims to open the movie; scenes of the torture perpetrated by the CIA under the Bush administration following the 9/11 attack; visceral recreations of other acts of terror like the 7/7 London bus bombings. But by its nature – a detailed, sprawling, globe-trotting, time-lapsing account of how Osama bin Laden was eventually found and killed – it also fundamentally lacks the singular, microscopic focus that made Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker, such an affecting and poignant experience.

And then I read MSN film critic Glenn Kenny’s fantastic review, and I better understood why I had a cloudy reaction. “Zero Dark Thirty is a Rorschach test disguised as a geopolitical thriller,” Kenny writes, and that’s dead on. It’s also, in my view, the film’s weakness.

For all its meticulousness in detail, the one thing Bigelow doesn’t do in Zero Dark Thirty is tell you what to think of any of it, or even reveal much of what she thinks of any of it. We’re shown how one CIA agent, here named “Maya” but based on a real-life, still-undercover agent, spends years of her life devoted to finding Osama bin Laden. But the narrative style is objective and detached: it’s broken up into a linear series of individual, episodic sequences spanning 9/11 and bin Laden’s death, each presented without any overt commentary. This led to this led to this led to this, the end.

Which is not to say Zero Dark Thirty isn’t designed to be provocative. Take, for example, the way the movie opens with the 9/11 audio and then cuts directly to the first of various CIA torture scenes, and the debate they’ve raised among political commentariats about whether the intention is to vindicate such policies. Glenn Greenwald thinks so, writing that the movie glorifies torture by presenting it “as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America.”

You can, by the way, also read Kenny’s great rebuttal of Greenwald’s argument here. Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan sees the exact opposite – that the juxtaposition of 9/11 and CIA torture reveals “the core truth behind [Dick] Cheney’s armchair warrior mindset.” He continues:

The torture was not for intelligence (and it provided nothing reliable as well as countless leads that were dead ends). It was for revenge. It was an emotional lashing out at often random Muslim suspects (and some genuine terrorists) for killing so many Americans.

For the record, that’s the way I saw it, too. But the fact that such divergent opinions can be formed around this one element of the movie gives you an idea of what Zero Dark Thirty is up to. It can be read in startlingly different ways, often depending on what beliefs/baggage you’re bringing to the film and what you want to see in it, or what elements happen to stick with you most.

zero dark thirty maya working

To continue with Kenny’s review, what he sees is a movie predominantly concerned with “knowing and not knowing.” There’s a lot of talk about certainty and probability, about how much you can trust a hunch, about whether you want something to be true so badly that you start to see truths that may not really be there. The recurring theme is established well in one of my favorite dialogue exchanges early in the movie, when the CIA station chief – in the middle of rattling off all the things they don’t know about Maya’s hunch that a courier could lead to bin Laden’s whereabouts – is suddenly interrupted by another CIA agent:

“We don’t know what we don’t know.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“…It’s a tautology.”

It was hard not to think about Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous opining about “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns,” but for all the flack he took for it (and, in the context he was speaking in, rightly so), there is truth in the fundamental concept. Some things we know, some things we know we don’t know, and some things we don’t even know we don’t know. A great deal of Zero Dark Thirty is concerned with how to handle each of these problems.

In this sense, what the movie unexpectedly reminded me of was David Fincher’s Zodiac, one of my favorite movies of recent years. Both movies are essentially procedurals: dramatizations of how professionals used their skills and available technology to (or try to) hunt and capture a killer. The biggest difference between the two, though, comes back to “knowns” and “unknowns.” Zodiac was ultimately about accepting what we can’t know – about desperately desiring closure that would always remain elusive, and coming to peace with the mystery.

Zero Dark Thirty, of course, has a different ending. Spoiler warning: bin Laden dies. And what, according to this movie, are we to make of that?

We’ll return to that in a moment. But this leads us to a different-but-related (and thoroughly fascinating) take on Zero Dark Thirty from Mubi’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. He argues that the film shows an intelligence/counter-terrorism system that’s become a self-perpetuating network of data and those who gather and interpret it:

What emerges is a portrait of modern warfare as an elaborate technocracy. Torture, surveillance, and enemy action are all treated as data, which is then used to calculate probabilities. These probabilities form the bases for future actions, which yield more data. The cycle goes on and on and on.

Here, too, there’s an interesting comparison to be made with Zodiac. Whereas Zodiac portrayed how the technological limitations of its era impeded the hunt for the Zodiac killer, with important pieces of evidence getting lost in the geographical distance between the counties involved in the case’s jurisdiction, what Zero Dark Thirty accomplishes is the inverse: portraying how cutting-edge technology has unnervingly made global manhunts into a sort of geopolitical Moneyball.

zero dark thirty video screen

Which brings us back to “knowns” and “unknowns,” because in a sense what this “elaborate technocracy” has done is help pinpoint exactly where we stand between the two. “We don’t deal in certainty, we deal in probability,” one CIA analyst says, and we’re shown how decisions are now made on a sliding scale of confidence.

Indeed, when we come to the crucial scene where they debate whether to storm the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that Maya’s courier has led them to, we’re left, as Vishnevetsky notes, with a group of analysts rattling off likelihoods. The consensus is about 60% that bin Laden is in there (only Maya insists it’s a 100% certainty), and I was reminded of my obsession with the probabilities from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model leading up to the 2012 presidential election.

(And, not for nothing, of Zodiac’s last scene, where the only living Zodiac victim picks out his attacker from a line-up of mugshots and on a scale of 1-10 assigns his certainty at “at least an eight.”)

But of course they do go through with the raid, which brings us back to bin Laden’s death. It’s appropriately glossed over during the tumult of the raid sequence itself, and the film ends pretty quickly after Maya confirms bin Laden’s body back at the Afghanistan base. Vishnevetsky writes that the film “never acknowledges any beneficial real-world results of either the War on Terror or the death of bin Laden; one is therefore led to assume that there haven’t been any.” And of the last shot, where we see a close-up of Maya sitting on a cargo plane having been asked where she wants to go next, with tears streaming down her cheeks, he writes that “what registers is a profound purposelessness—an unspoken ‘What now?'”

Yes, I saw that too. But I also saw a tremendous, cathartic expression of relief. And at last we come to my interpretation of this film, because what registered most for me – and I did not expect this going in – was a strong sense of…pride.

There aren’t a lot of them in a film filled with such (deliberately) morally queasy subject matter, but a big applause line comes when they’re presenting the finding of the Abbottabad compound to a high-ranking government agent. Maya is told to stand in the back, but can’t keep herself from interrupting to defend her theory. “Who are you?” the agent asks Maya. “I’m the motherfucker who found this place, sir.” Later that agent asks how long Maya’s been with the CIA. “12 years,” she says. And what has she done for them other than hunt bin Laden? “I’ve done nothing else.”

zero dark thirty maya flag

It’s this recognition that filled me with – yes – pride. Pride in the countless and mostly unheralded people who dedicated their lives to finding a mass murderer. “Geronimo, for God and country, Geronimo,” one Navy SEAL announces on his radio after identifying bin Laden’s body, and hell, I couldn’t help but feel a big old sense of fuck yeah. And that closing close-up of Maya also functions, to me, as one last underlining that this is the motherfucker who found him. I’m convinced a great impetus in Bigelow’s desire to make this movie was to give Maya – and all the nameless data gatherers she represents – a bit of well-deserved recognition and appreciation.

But all that being said, the question, for me, still remains: Besides this important sense of gratitude, what – if anything – are we to make of all that Zero Dark Thirty has to show us? For all there is to discuss and interpret, and for as fascinating as that makes it, I believe in the end that Zero Dark Thirty’s cold, sterile narrative posture fundamentally limits its greatness. Zodiac had a point to make, and it made it with clarity. Fincher took the story of an ultimately futile hunt for a serial killer and used it as a bigger jumping-off point to get at something deeper about human nature. Bigelow did the same with The Hurt Locker, using the story of one soldier’s experience in Iraq to say something profound about the new generation of veterans the war created.

As for what Zero Dark Thirty is saying about the War on Terror, or the nature of retributive justice, well, your interpretation is as good as mine. Maybe the simple fact is the events portrayed in this film are still too fresh for a filmmaker to take a definitive, unambiguous, artistic stance on. But at a certain reductive level, Zero Dark Thirty is an impressively elaborate way of telling us nothing new. Here’s a film that painstakingly dramatizes how America’s worst enemy in the 21st century was found and killed, and successfully evokes the huge amount of relief and closure that provided for our nation.

But like Maya felt on that cargo plane, I found myself wondering: Yes. But what now?

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