By Any Means Necessary
By MANOHLA DARGIS
There is a crucial scene in “Zero Dark Thirty” — Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliantly directed fictionalized account about the search for Osama bin Laden — in which three Central Intelligence Agency officers stop talking and look at a television. On the screen Barack Obama is speaking with a correspondent on “60 Minutes.” It’s Nov. 16, 2008. “I have said repeatedly,” Mr. Obama asserts, “that America doesn’t torture.” The three look at the screen without a word, and then Ms. Bigelow cuts to a close-up of one, Maya (Jessica Chastain). The analyst’s face is a blank. This is, Mr. Obama continues, part of “an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”
That vacant face partly explains, I suspect, why “Zero Dark Thirty” has stirred up so much controversy before hitting theaters. (It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday and nationwide on Jan. 11.) Is she stunned by what she hears? Contemptuous? Relieved? Irritated? Indifferent? Maya’s face reveals nothing and offers as much explanation as her silence. How viewers interpret this look will depend on them because here and throughout this difficult, urgent movie Ms. Bigelow does not fill in the blanks for them. Given that the opening sequences show Maya helping carry out violent, cruel interrogations of detainees, I read her expression as that of an employee absorbing a new set of marching orders from her next boss — orders that drastically reverse her old ones.
A seamless weave of truth and drama, “Zero Dark Thirty” tracks the long, twisted road to Bin Laden’s capture, beginning on Sept. 11 and ending a decade later at another conflagration, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. With a script by Mark Boal, who wrote “The Hurt Locker,” Ms. Bigelow’s last feature, this new movie is a cool, outwardly nonpartisan intelligence procedural — a detective story of sorts — in which a mass murderer is tracked down by people who spend a lot of time staring into computer screens and occasionally working in the field. It is also a wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs, which makes it the most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11, a landmark that would be more impressive if there were more such films to choose from.
The story hinges on Maya, a spiky loner with next to no back story, no friend or family, who’s more of an ambivalent protagonist than a traditional heroine. She is introduced in the first scene during the interrogation of a prisoner, Ammar (Reda Kateb), by another C.I.A. officer, Dan (Jason Clarke). Ammar, whom Mr. Boal has said is a composite, looks as if he has been beaten. “I own you,” Dan says, “you belong to me.” Dan leaves the room with someone wearing a ski mask; this turns out to be Maya, who pushes him to continue. He does. During this scene and a second questioning, Dan knocks Ammar down, subjects him to simulated drowning and forces him inside a horrifyingly small box. The violence is ugly, stark, almost businesslike and is largely presented without music cues or any obvious filmmaking commentary.
The scarcity of fiction films about Sept. 11 only partly explains why this movie has provoked debate. Primarily, though, it is the representation of torture — and, more important, the assertion that such abuse produced information that led to Bin Laden — that has provoked outrage in some quarters. We are clearly hungry to work through this raw subject. The most difficult scenes occur early and set the grim mood and moral stakes. (Later there are other, briefer visions of detainees being treated harshly.) It is hard to imagine anyone watching them without feeling shaken or repulsed. Some of the worst is implied: You see a bruised face, not the punch that battered it. You see a man forced into a small box, rather than hear his screams inside it. In these early scenes there is also talk — threats and pleas.
If Ms. Bigelow leaves some of this to your imagination, it is…