Stirring controversy well before its release, much of it thanks to political commentators who had not seen the film, Zero Dark Thirty arrives prepackaged as a referendum on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques — or, as it’s known outside the down cocoon of bureaucratic doublespeak, torture. In fact, the scenes in which presumed Islamic terrorists are subjected to waterboarding and hung in stress positions occupy only a tiny fraction of the film, and information thus extracted is one small stone on the path that eventually leads the CIA “targeter” played by Jessica Chastain to Osama bin Laden. The question of whether the movie distorts the role coercion played in finding bin Laden — senators and journalists say yes, while the CIA’s acting chief is less categorical — is critical, but it also points to a more amorphous and engaging question: Why?
Like filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, who have answered questions about their sources and intent with cagey generalities, Zero Dark Thirty has a disturbing moral blankness at its core. Framed as a factual account, even if Chastain’s Maya is pseudonymous, the film climaxes with the raid on bin Laden’s compound, the longest sustained departure from its protagonist’s POV and a troubling sop to action-movie enthusiasts. The joyless intensity with which Maya (whose name means “illusion” in Sanskrit) pursues her goal, her resolve redoubled after a colleague falls prey to a suicide attack, echoes the country’s all-consuming fury, especially as it threatens to eclipse any other reason for her existence.
With no life apparent outside of her job, Maya serves as a mirror, reflecting the concerns, or lack of them, that audiences bring. One moment peddling militaristic rah-rah, the next questioning it, Zero Dark Thirty works both sides of the razor-wire fence, a gambit that places it at war with itself. As in life, the guys with the biggest guns come out ahead, but that’s not quite the same as winning.