Zero Dark Thirty and the danger of equivocation

Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain

Zero Dark Thirty was never in contention to be a quiet release, coming so quickly after the events which it depicts: the talking points are only just cooling from the oven – torture, imperialism, the murder of Bin Laden – ready for any ideologue to hoist their own colour upon. Doubtless many of those who use the film as talking point fodder, as always, will have likely not gone to the trouble of watching it. The film’s chief merit is its technical proficiency, its arresting, seductive neutrality, yielding to any pre-conceived notion one might bring to it about the morality of torture.
Yet the idea that the film is loosely supportive of torture need look no further than the film’s final shot. Jessica Chastain’s Maya sits in a military plane that has been chartered for her personal use. A destination other than the one she has been pursuing so doggedly for twelve years is unimaginable for her. Instead we get a midshot of blank tears rolling down her face. If the film supports torture, it shows its worth only in relation to a goal that seems ultimately relatively futile. It’s surprising how uncomplicatedly some critics (notably Sight & Sound‘s Guy Westwell) have approached Maya’s confidence as legitimised in the film. ‘I believe I was spared so I could finish the job,’ she justifies with blood-curdling Manifest Destiny. ‘Once you’re on their list,’ says a colleague, warning her of the perpetual threat to her life, ‘You’re never off it. No one should know that better than you.’ This last comment is particularly damning: either as an indication of her dark knowledge of the unbuckling resistance of detainees under torture, or as a reference to her own unswerving dedication in getting her man, the organisation is more than aware that Maya has stared into the abyss long enough for it to stare back at her.


Much of the discussion of the film’s support of torture focuses on the sympathy offered to Maya: despite her complicity in brutal acts of torture, she has the morality and sensitivity her enemies do not have, that the weight of war hangs heavily on her. In fact, the greater reality is Maya’s total blankness: one of the surprises of the film is that after two and a half hours in her company, we know little about her motivations. She has merely been consumed, recruited before her moral compass was set and placed into a position of power amongst amoral superiors. The blindness involved in this morally hermetic environment is clear when the key piece of evidence is proffered by a sycophantic junior colleague. Not only is Maya able to accept the plaudits from this woman who (troublingly) idolises her, but she also misses the cue that the ‘white noise’ of information gained via torture has obscured a piece of evidence that could have brought her relentless hunt to an end years before.

The procedural final quarter of the infiltration of the compound makes the mission seem like neither Semper Fi cheerleading nor baby-eating, bloodthirsty cowardice. Bullets drop and bodies fall but it’s manages to be simultaneously utterly banal and gripping. It’s a fitting end to a film that has the temerity to present a situation with some degree of the murky flavour of life.

Also it manages to be credible with a CIA made up of Special Agent Bert Macklin, Mark ‘Puffy Chair’ Duplass and John Fucking Barrowman.

Barrowman’s Jeremy, moments before he waterboarded the spaniel.

Maybe Bigelow is able to make you swallow agendas you never thought possible.

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