Let’s start with the title, a phrase that probably meant nothing to you before you associated it with this movie. Apparently “Zero Dark Thirty” means 12:30 a.m. in military parlance, but that’s not what it means to you, Hollywood’s consumer. To you, it means “the name of the movie about the CIA finding and killing Osama bin Laden.” It’s a cipher, a code, a set of words stripped of any context but the meaning which the movie gives them, and in its very absence of meaning, it comes to stand for the movie’s own howling absence of meaning.
Imagine if the movie was titled “Geronimo,” by contrast. Think about how the name would pass judgment on the events it describes, would frame how they were to be received. “Geronimo” was the code name used to identify Osama bin Laden, but it has a meaning all its own, a historical resonance and narrative. And by passing that meaning onto the film, it would have contextualized the story of this CIA man-hunt within a very specific historical narrative, a story of Cowboys and Indians and of the conquest of “the West.” Its ideology would crystallize at the surface, where we could reach down and pluck it up. No matter what we think of that story, we would understand its meaning, and could debate it, think it through.
Instead, we are left with a movie that wants to mean as little as possible, to de-contextualize the events it shows us until they are nothing more than the experience of seeing them. This is what Bigelow and Boal have meant when they describe their movie as “journalistic.” They don’t mean it’s accurate or objective, and not only because it’s neither, and obviously didn’t try to be. They mean that it’s something you can’t talk about, something that just is.
At the level of affect, of course, the movie absolutely has a politics: it teaches you to identify with the torturer, first an intelligent and attractively reassuring CIA interrogator whose bearded certainty make “torture” into a safe and reliable and controlled event, a thing which might be unpleasant to watch, but which will not surprise or startle us. Everything is under control. And then we cut from that controlled violation to some of the loudest gunshots I’ve ever heard in a movie, as a bunch of terrorists kill wildly and insensibly in some hotel somewhere. Who are they? Why? When? What? We have no idea.
We know exactly why the CIA interrogator does what he does, by contrast, and we know it’s under control; our mind might revolt, but our body does not rush with adrenaline nor our pulse begin to race until we see a bus-bomb go off in London or a Marriott explode. And in this way, the movie settles into a predictable and Pavlovian rhythm, alternating between grueling torture scenes—which you endure, and harden yourselves towards—and sudden explosions of terrific violence that are not only exactly as predictable as a Pavlovian training must be, but raise the stakes a little more each time. You see it coming, you know what it is, and it still trains your body each time. The final attack on OBL’s compound is framed in exactly the same way: subjectively shot from the perspective of the Seal Team, you fear danger in the compound, and are relieved when the figures inside are dead.
To put it simply, this is a movie that teaches you how to fear terrorism and to reassure yourself with torture. But its brilliance as a piece of propaganda is that focuses on your body while leaving your mind alone. Many people have pointed out that the movie inaccurately suggests that information from “enhanced interrogations” of detainees was necessary and useful, and they’re right, but the movie is also very careful to clarify that that such information was not sufficient. It’s a bit like putting a single good guy Asian-American in the new Red Dawn to demonstrate that the movie isn’t racist: it’s a completely transparent gambit, but it also works. If Bigelow/Boal’s critics are right that the movie makes torture seem effective, the movie’s defenders are right that it makes torture seem ineffective. At the level of rational meaning, then, it means nothing at all: both sides of that debate can find support for their position, and no resolution of the argument. The movie, therefore, means nothing.
Again, this is not to say that the movie is “objective”; it’s one of the most subjective movies I’ve ever seen, actually. In the first half of the movie, ten years are filtered through a few brief scenes, perhaps an hour and a half of screen-time, and like time-lapse photography, we see the characters age before our eyes. We see Maya get worn and drawn, and cold, and we see the CIA interrogator change beard styles as he rots behind a desk. But the narrative subjectivity of the film is chained to the experience of a slow-building traumatic obsession, and only a self-abnegating and ascetic zealotry, in service of a murderous completion, can be rewarded.
The movie Act of Valor fails because it tries to make it seem like being a Navy Seal is kind of great, because it tries to glorify the same life it works so hard to portray as soul-deadening. It collapses into incoherence as a result, and flopped at the box office. This movie, on the other hand, succeeds because it never tries to glorify Maya’s obsession, never tries to rationalize it, defend it, or even make it seem attractive. Maya is not an attractive character. Her obsession makes her ugly, makes her frightening, and hers is an unpleasant subjectivity to be stuck with. But it’s still the one we’re stuck with for two and a half hours. And in this sense, the movie makes up for its lack of ideology by its claustrophobic epistemology: we know what we feel, because we know only what we do not know. You have no choice but to identify with torturers whose motivations you understand, and with the victims of Muslim violence whose motives you are made not to be privy to. After all, why do they hate us? To say that the movie doesn’t want to answer this question is obvious, but less obvious is the way the movie wants to make that question as unavoidable as it is unanswerable. Over and over and over again, we see the spectacle of Muslims threatening violence we do not understand, interspersed with violence against Muslims which we do understand. And while we may not like who we are, and what we understand, it would never occur to us to doubt that we are what the movie makes us feel ourselves to be.