For a movie that's billed as an action-thriller, Zero Dark Thirty spends a lot of time looking like a slow and steady police procedural. The film's climax may be the takedown of Osama bin Laden by a crack team of Navy SEALS, but it comes only after scripter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have chronicled a decade of paper shuffling, data crunching, false leads, dead ends and bureaucratic wrangling, all conveyed in a tight, terse style.
ZDT is an odd mix of big event and banal routine, which might be why a lot of audiences are so-so on the film, while the critics (who love an odd mix) are mostly ecstatic.
There are larger controversies, as well, particularly concerning the film's depiction of torture. Some say the film condones the use of torture, some say it denounces the use of torture, and some say it maintains a neutrality that amounts to immorality.
Since ZDT is essentially about how humans interpret data, it may be fitting that it's subject to the same processes. Everyone is looking at the same information, but somehow they all see it as supporting their own views. ("Confirmation bias," as one of ZDT's CIA operatives says.)
American Sen. John McCain, himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, believes that the film misleadingly and irresponsibly suggests a clear link between intelligence obtained through torture and the capture of bin Laden. According to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, the film's basic stance is a Cheneyesque justification of what the CIA euphemistically calls "enhanced interrogation" techniques. "No waterboarding, no bin Laden: that's what Zero Dark Thirty appears to suggest," Bruni writes.
On the other side, Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Daily Beast, suggests that "the movie is not an apology for torture, as so many have said, and as I have worried about. It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years and remain at large, while they scapegoated the grunts at Abu Ghraib who were, yes, merely following their superior's own orders."
Finally, for Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor, the film refuses to take any stance at all: "By showing scenes of torture without taking any kind of moral (as opposed to tactical) stand on what we are seeing, Bigelow has made an amoral movie -- which is, I would argue, an unconscionable approach to this material."
ZDT remains open to these conflicting readings partly because the issue of torture is so fraught but also because the movie is so hard to read. Playing the lead CIA investigator, Jessica Chastain seems to overcompensate for her extravagant flame-haired beauty by being the toughest son-of-a-bitch on the job.
Bigelow, likewise, always seems to make "masculine" films -- lean, mean and laconic, what she calls "boots-on-the-ground" movies. In Zero Dark Thirty, there are no back stories, no chats about personal feelings, no speeches about means and ends, and only the most oblique hints of emotional costs and ethical doubts. Everyone just gets on with things.
This studied neutrality is disconcerting. But is it amoral?
I would say no (though I can't quite rule out confirmation bias). For me, the scenes of torture are graphically brutal but never gratuitous. Pared down and unsparing, they seem to suggest that torture is not only inhuman but also ineffective. ZDT shows up a haze of human error: What prisoners tell is taken as significant, and what they refuse to tell is taken as significant. Interrogators hear whatever they already believe, and prisoners say whatever they think their torturers want to hear.
When it comes to the depiction of torture, Bigelow's straight-up style might just hide complexity in plain sight. This idea seems borne out by the film's conclusion. In an extended sequence, Bigelow meticulously recreates what is now one of the most famous military missions in history without a hint of Hollywood histrionics or American triumphalism. Despite the SEALS and the helicopters and the explosions and the gunfire and the getaway, the whole thing feels a little like a letdown. The death of bin Laden is presented not as a wrapped-up stars-and-stripes ending but as one more entry in an ongoing global conflict.
For the movie's supporters -- and I'd count myself here -- this carefully constructed anticlimax feels strangely right. In the paradoxical Zero Dark Thirty, it's the tediousness that builds the tension, and the flattened-out, just-the-facts-ma'am tone that leads to troubling moral questions.