Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is based, a title-card tells us, on ‘first-hand accounts’, but it’s not a documentary film. It’s a sort of revenge western, clean, elegant, relentless. Loved ones are killed, a lone hero, in this case a heroine, sets out to find the killer or the man behind the killing; finds him, has him executed. Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal perfectly, disturbingly, catch the allure, the obsessive charm of revenge as a pursuit and a goal; and remind us of the desolate, empty nature of revenge if and when it is achieved. What do we have when we have it?
They may also be telling us, although this is probably too metaphysical a thought to draw from such an untalky movie, something about the desolation of all achievements chased too long and too hard, the moment when winning a war or getting what you want seem to have become, perhaps have to become, ideas without meaning. The heroine of this movie, the mind behind bin Laden’s death, is not among the exultant American crowds when the news breaks. She is about to travel, alone, in a large military aircraft, having identified the body of the man killed in a Pakistan compound as bin Laden: just a corpse really, in the end, a body in a bag, and from one carefully chosen camera angle, just a beard and a nose. I could do without the tear that runs down her cheek at this moment; but there’s no doubt her mood is both complex and bleak. It may even include a dark note of triumph, but it doesn’t include joy. When the pilot asks her where she wants to go, she doesn’t answer, and the movie ends there.
The paranoid theory about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, after George W. Bush’s much mocked neo-western claim that he was going to get him dead or alive (‘There’s an old poster out West I recall,’ Bush said), was that it could not, in our age of advanced technology and sophisticated bribery, be impossible to find the master terrorist, and so the truth had to be that no one wanted to find him. We just wanted to be seen to be looking for him. I was a fan of this theory myself, but Zero Dark Thirty gives us much better myths to work with, while allowing the paranoid theory just a little wiggle room. It was easy to find bin Laden, once you got lucky: a matter of trails and surveillance, phone taps, watching, waiting, listening, hoping that you were doing those things in the right place. One day, a companion of bin Laden’s, the one you have been trailing, would visit him. Maybe. And also of course finding bin Laden was impossible, until you hit that piece of luck. Did the torture of which the film makes such a persuasive display help with this discovery? Not immediately, but the information gained through this method may have confirmed that the trail was a real trail.
The film offers no view of the morality of these practices, and is almost funny about the bribery: at one point the mere revelation of a telephone number gets a man a bright yellow Lamborghini courtesy of the US government. The ethical atmosphere of the world within the movie is not so much that of the war on terror, with its all too useful rhetorical slither, as that of a simple war: we want to kill the people who kill our people. The thing is to find them, and not kill the wrong persons, no one wants to do that. Similarly with torture: the point is not to indulge in your sadism or xenophobia, but to get these broken people to talk. We may get anxious about such distinctions. Do we want to say there are good torturers and bad, or that some collateral killing is all right? No, all torture is bad, no collateral killing is acceptable, but as with most forms of horrible human behaviour, some people think their job requires such exertions and some people overdo it just for their own pleasure. No reason to confuse the two groups, as long as we are trying to understand rather than defend a practice. There’s a striking scene in the movie that shows Obama on a small television screen saying the US does not torture anyone. The torturers, watching the screen in their undisclosed hideout, don’t say anything.
And then, to continue with the question of the possible or impossible discovery, the movie evokes a quite different obstacle. Once you’ve found your man, how do you know it’s him, and not one of the many other powerful fellows in the world who have murky associates and reasons to be in hiding – drug dealers, warlords in other wars? There is a magnificent sequence in the film where the CIA high-ups are all assembled to decide on the probability that the man concealed in the compound they have identified in Pakistan is bin Laden. A roomful of suited men offer their opinions. The CIA director, an old-fashioned sort played by James Gandolfini, asks not for probabilities but for yes or no answers: is he there or not? He gets only the men’s best guesses, and they settle for a 60 per cent chance of the targeted man being bin Laden. Our heroine, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain with a brilliantly sustained angry, lonely authority, the one woman in the room, a relatively junior officer but the one who has done all the bleak and dogged detective work that has got them this far, is not asked for her opinion but gives it anyway: ‘100 per cent,’ she says. ‘Or 95 per cent, since I know you people don’t like to talk about certainties.’ She can’t be wrong in this movie, because of its tilt and pacing, but what if she was? The hunt for bin Laden would have reverted to the realm of the impossible.
This film is a story of a woman in a man’s world. Chastain is too tight and self-contained for anyone to feel sorry for her, and she certainly doesn’t feel sorry for herself. When she is first allowed to attend a meeting with Gandolfini – that is, to sit off at some distance in the same room with him – she answers his casual, mildly offensive question as to who she is by saying: ‘I’m the motherfucker who found bin Laden.’ But Bigelow recurs visually again and again to the gender structure of this world, the slight, red-haired woman among a crowd of men in shirts and ties – and later among a bunch of burly Navy Seals hamming up their macho self-portraits. She is on her own; she will never be part of this world, whatever her impact on it or contribution to it. And she is the female avenger, since apart from pursuing her career in the agency, she has an intense personal reason for getting bin Laden or having him got. The loved ones in the large revenge story are the victims of 9/11, of course. But there is a particular victim in Chastain’s world. Her colleague Jessica, played by Jennifer Ehle, had set up a meeting with one of bin Laden’s associates at a military outpost in Afghanistan. Both she and Chastain had high hopes of this encounter. It was a trap. The supposed associate was a couple of men in a car with a bomb, and when it exploded Jessica and six other Americans died. Chastain’s whole approach to her task alters at this moment.
In this sense Zero Dark Thirty is a very American film, and not just a film in which Americans play a large role. It sends us back to all those movies, of which there are dozens and of which Casablanca is the most famous, where our hero initially (or indeed finally) has no ideological beef with the bad guys, no politics so to speak, he is either the eternally isolationist American or a person who is just doing his job. Then the bad guys do something to someone he cares about and he joins the fray – fortunately on the right side.
Before I saw Zero Dark Thirty I would have said this old legend, for all the grandeur of its anti-political delusion, was about as dead as a legend can be, but Bigelow’s sense of narrative focus and energy is such that we desperately want Chastain to be right about bin Laden – even if we feel, as I do, that the whole hunt and certainly the execution, was an atrocity. This is what I meant by saying that Chastain could have been wrong in reality, but can’t be wrong in the movie. We need Chastain to be right because we want her outsider’s theory to be justified, we want her hard work to pay off, her obsession to find its reward – and because she turns out to have personal rather than political or professional grounds for her quest and obsession. Who would want to team up with those men timidly going for 60 per cent when a real heroine is available? As a movie-watcher, that is. In real life, we’re no doubt even more timid than those fellows are. It’s good to have movies to remind us of the space between habit and dream.