Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

by Christopher B. Barnett

What is the goal of cinema? Should films strive to reproduce reality, or are they illusory manifestations of their auteurs‘ vision? This is, arguably, the classic debate in film theory, eliciting contributions from thinkers as diverse as Sergei Eisenstein, Sigfried Kracauer, André Bazin, and F.E. Sparshott. Of course, one reason why the discussion persists is that it defies easy answers. Recently, in my course on “Theology and Film,” I asked students to weigh in on this question, paying particular attention to a film we had studied during the semester. Many of them chose either Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), and, despite the differences between these two films, they found support for either side of the debate. Sure, Malick’s attention to the natural world suggests a realistic, “open” style of filmmaking, but, then, his well-known use of voiceover is only possible through editing technique (though whether or not that makes it less real is another question). Likewise, Nolan’s employment of special effects, not to mention his embrace of the superhero genre, implies a cinematic experience abstracted from reality; and yet, for all of that, does not The Dark Knight confront a number of pressing “real-world” issues, from the post-9/11 fear of terrorism to the very possibility of absolute moral obligations?

Perhaps, then, this issue was just on my mind when I finally got around to seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, but I couldn’t help but think of how this film gets to the heart of this theoretical conundrum. The story of the CIA’s attempt to find Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty is, in a number of respects, an example of cinematic realism. For example, The New Yorker‘s David Denby praises Bigelow’s portrayal of moral ambiguity, noting that Zero Dark Thirty “pays close attention to the way life does work.” And, famously, the film’s depiction of “enhanced interrogation” (what many would simply call “torture”) has divided both critics and filmgoers. The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, claims that Zero Dark Thirty is an attempt to “normalize” torture and, in turn, to legitimate the methods of American military power. Yet Andrew Sullivan, formerly of The Daily Beast, views it rather as an exposure of torture and of the tactics of “armchair warriors” such as former Vice President, Dick Cheney. What’s interesting, however, is that all of these perspectives agree on a decisive point — namely, that Bigelow does, in fact, make a film that hews closely to the real, that does, in fact, reproduce life as it actually is, for better or for worse.

But is this true? In other words, is is it not also (or even more) true to say that Zero Dark Thirty has pretensions of being realistic but, in truth, is closer to “movie magic,” a figment of Bigelow’s imagination, translated to the screen with admirable dexterity? Much could be said in favor of this perspective. After all, the film was not shot in Pakistan, where most of it is set, but in Manimajra, India. And, ironically, residents there were said to be excited about the film’s Oscar prospects — a reception quite different from that portrayed on film. But this is only a crude example of a deeper issue, which, I think, hits on the weakness of Zero Dark Thirty. As one critic has complained, the film’s protagonist, “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), is depicted as relentlessly single-minded in her pursuit of bin Laden. Indeed, we are given little information as to her motivation, other than an amorphous sense of anger and revenge. The same could be said of Bigelow’s development of other characters, whether Maya’s fellow CIA agents (including Jason Clarke, in a key role) or the Al-Qaeda operatives they are pursuing.

Surely, however, this is an illusion. History doesn’t just “happen” but, rather, is animated by various ideas and systems, be they economic, political, or theological. Yet, in sidelining such considerations, ostensibly in the name of “realism,” Bigelow fails to do justice to what is really real. Hence, paradoxically, Zero Dark Thirty is not quite as serious as it means to be. It might have explored the curious points of overlap, whether in the East or in the West, between fundamentalism(s) and power; it might have considered moderate political or theological voices; at the very least, it might have offered a clearer rationale for its main players, so that they become more than one-dimensional cutouts. But it doesn’t. Content to stick to the “facts,” Zero Dark Thirty lacks the philosophical substructure that might have made it truly important; it crumbles, finally, under its own weight.