The key to Zero Dark Thirty comes within the first few minutes. Not the much-discussed opening torture scene itself, no, but the brief interaction in a hallway that follows it. Noting the youth of the Pakistan station’s new analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), Dan (Jason Clarke) offhandedly laments this “Children’s Crusade”.
The Children’s Crusade was a strange chapter of history, a conflation of events which quickly slipped into myth. After the failure of the Fourth Crusade, tens of thousands of children were swept in a religious fervour (led, it was said, by a child prophet) to reclaim the Jerusalem themselves. They marched through Europe, swelling in number, only to reach the Mediterranean. When the seas did not part as promised, they were sold into slavery by the monks that guided them, or drowned, or starved to death on the shore. None of them saw the Holy Land.
Kurt Vonnegut recounts the tale in Slaughterhouse Five, taking it as a symbol for the sordid hopelessness of war itself, if “only slightly more sordid than the ten Crusades for grown-ups”. It has long been a byword for the injustice of conflicts borne by the innocent.
It seems like an odd reference for a remorseless torturer. But of course, it’s part of what makes the morality of the events in Zero Dark Thirty so slippery. Dan isn’t an idiot or an autonomous grunt. He is a smart man who genuinely believes that putting a leash on another human being and hanging him from the ceiling is the right thing to do. And the entire CIA machine stands behind him.
The narrative propulsion of Zero Dark Thirty is the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and it’s a riveting basis for a film. But I’d argue that it’s clearly not what the film is about. To accept that the hunt for Bin Laden is the film’s only purpose is to mimic the “ends justify the means” mentality of its CIA characters. Viewed through that lens, then the torture issue is problematic. Although there’s a lot of smoke blown around it (and, importantly, despite hundreds of detainees, the film never once shows actionable intelligence gained from a prisoner through torture), torture is part of the causality. In a methodical, journalistic film, more Zodiac or All the President’s Men than Black Hawk Down, it an intrinsic part of the process by which Maya tracks down Bin Laden.
But Bigelow’s film isn’t about Bin Laden. It is about Maya, and it’s about the transformative effect of the 9/11 on the American psyche. The mention of a ‘Children’s Crusade’ is Mark Boal’s script tipping its hand. Maya, we are reminded, has no friends outside the workplace (and barely any within it). She lives alone, gorging herself on burgers and soda, protected by an armed guard and bullet-proof glass.
A lunchtime conversation between Maya and James Gandolfini’s CIA Director initiates the film’s final act. He wants to know the source of her unerring confidence that the compound in Abbotabad houses Osama. In a stilted conversation, he asks about her recruitment out of high school. He asks what else she has done. The answer? She has hunted Osama bin Laden. A fanatical quest is the only life she knows.
It is not triumphant. It’s heartbreaking. Maya may not wield a rifle like the Navy Seals who storm Osama’s compound in the virtuoso assault sequence, but she is no less a solider, taken by the government in her youth and engineered for war.
Al-Qaeda and their extremist allies around the world have always been righteously denounced for their indoctrination of children, and willingness to put innocents on the front line or to death. Zero Dark Thirty portrays an America that, to fight evil, has been willing to plumb its own depths. But it’s also a film that doesn’t come out and say it. There’s no easily relatable character walking the halls of the CIA in Pakistan denouncing torture and advocating a higher moral ground to clarify any confusion about what you should be feeling. Instead, we are in the company of men and women who believe that torture works (otherwise, why would they do it?), and we watch just how quickly Maya is pulled into that “pretty fucked up” world.
Bigelow and Boal don’t end with a victory celebration. There’s no press conference, no champagne. No cut to Obama’s “the arc of history bends towards justice” speech. Instead, we are left with a woman staring at a corpse in a black body bag. The body is already less important than the paperwork and hard drives secured in the last minutes of the assault. Then, she sits alone in an airplane. She is finally free. The pilot informs her that she can go anywhere. And, in a devastating closeup, Maya begins to cry.
I think the film’s detractors aren’t wrong, per say. But they’ve nonetheless accepted the primacy of the Hunt for Bin Laden over character and theme – they worry that the film (in which they unquestionably reacted, as they were clearly meant to, with revulsion at the torture scenes), advocates torture because it is a part of the procedural puzzle. They would prefer a counter-myth that affirms that Bin Laden was caught and executed (and make no mistake, the Navy Seals are painted as executioners, courageous or no) ‘the right way’. Yet, whatever the veracity of the details of how exactly ‘UBL’ was finally found, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the hunt saw America and its representatives resort to the cruel and the monstrous. They initiated their own Children’s Crusade.
Zero Dark Thirty has no illusions about the cost of the War on Terror and the hunt for Bin Laden – in lives, and in souls. And over Maya’s tears, the filmmakers are asking us loud and clear – do you think it was worth it?
Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece because it refuses to answer for us.