As much as I'd like to dive straight into the technical and aesthetic aspects of ZERO DARK THIRTY I'm going to mainly address the political stuff because, let's face it, that's what you've heard about and it's what you'll be left thinking about if you view the film yourself, which is- and I can't stress this enough - something you absolutely should do.
I'll also preface what I'm about to say by making it clear that I totally reject the idea that whatever conclusions you come to in regards to the film's stance on torture will automatically and inflexibly place you on one side of an ideological debate on the efficacy of torture (ie you're either pro or against). If you think that it advocates torture, fine. If you don't, that's also fine. That doesn't mean you're a flag-waving George Bush acolyte and apologist, as some would have you believe. That said, I also think that discussing the moral implications of the way this particular story is told is absolutely valid.
However, I do think that a lot of the commentary on ZERO DARK THIRTY (most of it from my own trusted liberal media sources - et tu, The Guardian?) has had a hectoring, patronising quality that I find disquieting and, to be honest, misleading.
For me personally, I went in believing that the whole period borne out of the September 11 attacks is and was an extremely unpleasant, tragic and regrettable episode, that has been handled badly by nearly everybody involved at every step, that led to the US government doing a lot of terrible things in the name of purported freedom, and I left even more convinced this was the case. I'm sure people who thought torture was acceptable in the context of the hunt of Osama Bin Laden also went in thinking that and left thinking that. There is no doubt that ZERO DARK THIRTY has moments that are challenging and disturbing regardless of your political affiliation, but that to me is the sign of filmmakers who are willing to trust the intelligence of their audiences.
Now, for all the labelling of the film as irresponsible, sadistic, mendacious and propagandistic, I haven't seen one commentator or reviewer come out of the film and say that their opinion on torture or any of the aspects of the War on Terrorism was changed by ZERO DARK THIRTY. The hysterical reaction to the film's content from mainly liberal voices (and I say this as the wussiest, tree-hugging, panty-waist, 'can't we all just get along' hippy liberal in the world) is kind of arrogant and offensive in the way that it says: "Oh sure, our opinions didn't change, but only because we're engaged and educated in the issues. Less thoughtful people will blindly accept what's on screen as an absolute truth, and use it to justify torture in the future."
Now, I guess there are a lot of stupid people around, so maybe this isn't the most outrageous assumption in the world. But I do think that what's on screen is genuinely going to look different for each viewer, and I find it hard to believe that even the world's most slack-jawed yokel will be able to take what the film presents them with and then be able to leave it pumping their fists in the air and singing the Star-Spangled Banner. It's ridiculous to me, therefore, to assume that the kind of pro-US, torture-justifying, pro-CIA narrative that is seen by the film's detractors is the same thing that will be seen by everyone else.
(I'm going to delve into some of the more contentious details regarding the role of torture in the film now - it all happens within the first hour, and if any film is spoiler-proof, it's ZERO DARK THIRTY, but if you're super sensitive to spoilers you can probably duck out of this now as I'm going to go into detail.)
The first scene features a real-life emergency call from someone trapped in the Twin Towers before it collapses on Septemebr 11, played over a black screen. We then see a man being detained by the CIA being brutally tortured for the name of one of his associates, someone the CIA believe is planning an upcomng terror attack. Despite horrific treatment at the hands of a sadistic CIA operative the man refuses, and the terror attack takes place. Jessica Chastain's character Maya then comes up with the idea to tell the detainee that he has already given up his allies and that he has forgotten his confession due to the sleep deprivation the CIA has been inflicting causing a short-term memory loss. After Maya tells him this, and her CIA colleague threatens to throw him back in the cell if he doesn't provide more information, the prisoner gives them a few names of former cohorts, but nothing concrete. Maya then takes these slim pickings and, combining them with testimonies from other interrogations (that look far less barbaric), and a decade of solid detective work, slowly begins to move closer to the lead that will eventually take them to Bin Laden.
Now, I don't think even the biggest ZERO DARK THIRTY detractor thinks that the film is saying torture is a good thing. The depiction is too raw, unpleasant and inhumane, which is obviously as it should be, and the torture in and of itself is proved to be ineffective, with Maya's ingenuity proving more important to cracking the lead than anything else. The argument is that the film is in some way justifying why it took place: by preceding the torture scenes with emotive 9/11 audio footage, the viewer is angered and immediately wants to see payback. This is true: but the retribution is depicted as so abhorrent, that - in my mind at least - it demonstrated clearly and quickly, in practically one cut, how flawed and damaging the Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye mentality of the US government at the time was.
The other big issue many seem to have with these early scenes is the fact that, supposedly, the CIA itself (with the exception of one former operative, who claims the exact opposite) say that torture played no role in ascertaining the lead that eventually led to Bin Laden, when ZERO DARK THIRTY gives it the tangential but important role outlined above. While I think it is supremely unlikely that torture played a pivotal role in finding Bin Laden, at this point I think it's worth pointing out the irony in the fact that the detractors of the film, who dismiss it out of hand as CIA propoganda, are pointing to official CIA accounts to back up their assertions that torture played no role in finding him. Regardless, it does seem that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have taken a crucial bit of creative license here, and I think it is right to ask why it's there.
I can kind of understand it purely from a screenwriting perspective, though - the torture scenes at the beginning are absolutely necessary, becasue you can't expect to tell a story about this time period and omit the US's brutal policies, and liberals would be the first to accuse Bigelow of a hagiography if this were the case. However, these scenes also needed to be linked to the rest of the narrative, and this is how Boal chose to do it. It's clumsy - perhaps misguided - but in my eyes forgivable and even understandable, for reasons I'll lay out below.
These opening scenes - 9/11, followed by reprehensible scenes of torture - set up what I think is the thesis for the whole film: revenge, retribution and justice are three entirely different things, but the distinction is easy to lose track of when your reasoning is clouded by political and personal emotion. I think the film as a whole articulates this brilliantly: firstly, while every character is ostensibly in the business of 'protecting' America, which superficially is a noble cause, there's not one character in it that you could unevivicoally describe as 'good'. At some point nearly all of them are morally compromised, and have personalities that range from myopic to politically ruthless to outright sociopathic - and this includes Maya. Maya's shown in some scenes to be complicit in and accepting of torture, but I can't get behind the idea she's an audience surrogate and is therefore giving us the thumbs-up to accept what's happening on screen - in fact, her obsessive nature feels deliberately distancing and kind of a turn-off, sympathy-wise. She's certainly one of the more abrasive and enigmatic lead characters I've seen in a mainstream film for a while. That she's still engaging on screen is due to a fantastic performance from Chastain, but it's not a character that I think the audience will blindly accept any decision from purely because she's a loveable heroine.
Then there's staggeringly accomplished final 45 minutes, which - SPOILER ALERT BUT NOT REALLY - depicts the raid on the Bin Laden compound, and this really is a case of Bigelow successfully having her cake and eating it. Not only is it one of the best and most thrilling action setpieces I've seen in years, but in its refusal to end in the kind of triumphalistic hoo-ah-ing catharsis we've come to expect from years of watching courageous US Marines take down assorted wiley foreigners, and instead chooses to depict the assassination of Osama Bin Laden as something ultimately sad and not a little pathetic, the dull reality of his death as shown here certainly throws into sharp relief those ludicrous scenes we all remember of Americans partying outside the White House upon hearing the news he'd been killed.
This is all important, because if torture was shown in ZERO DARK THIRTY to play a part in finding Bin Laden and then his death was subsequently presented as a triumphant, climactic achievement of the work carried out by brave, selfless Americans, then I think it would be far more problematic and irresponsible. What I see here, though, is Bin Laden's death presented as another grim moment in the almighty clusterfuck that was the War on Terror, an event that put a short-term Band-Aid on an enormous sucking wound, something that was good for Obama's short-term approval ratings and probably won a few people some promotions here and there, but left the rest of us feeling hollow.
This is what I left ZERO DARK THIRTY with - obviously others have come out of it with vastly different opinions, which I think ultimately has to be to the film's credit. Anything that can inspire radically different views in people is, almost by definition, a successful piece of art, and I would say that, once the initial controversy dies out, ZERO DARK THIRTY will come to be seen as one of the defining artistic statements on the War on Terror. It almost goes without saying that it is expertly acted and directed (Bigelow's Oscar snub is genuinely outrageous), thrilling moment to moment, and probably the best cinematic procedural drama since David Fincher's ZODIAC. But its biggest achievements are in its convicing representation of the labyrinthe nature of a manhunt in the information age, and in conveying the scared, confused, hysterical atmosphere of the period.
If there is one criticism of ZERO DARK THIRTY that I do think is valid, it's that practically every Arab face in it is unsympathetic - it's a very lop-sided account of a war which was fought by two sides, which is far more troubling than the torture controvery in my opinion. I would say, however that this is a criticism you can level at most American films about middle-Eastern conflict - Ben Affleck's ARGO, for example, a critical darling, is just as guilty, but as its subject isn't as politically fragile as ZERO DARK THIRTY's it seems to not be as much of an issue. Not that that excuses Bigelow's film: heist comedy THREE KINGS is still probably the most humane, thoughtful and even-handed Hollywood film about war in the Middle East, which is kind of a sobering thought.
I do think Bigelow and Boal asked for trouble by attempting to establish ZERO DARK THIRTY as 'journalistic' in its approach in the pre-release PR, as that's always going to be a loaded term. Whether there can ever be such a thing as 'objective journalism' is extremely debatable, but the fact is that when you use that term people are going to expect factual accuracy, which is something that is certainly not guaranteed by this particular film, and I'd go as far as to say that it absolutely fails as an attempt at an objective journalistic account.
However, I don't think this detracts from its achievement as a provocative piece of cinematic art, which I'd like to think is what it was primaruly constructed as. The aesthetics argument for ZERO DARK THIRTY has been rejected by liberal critics, who have histrionically invoked various permutations of Godwin's law and compared it to the likes of THE BIRTH OF A NATION and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, technically important films in the context of cinema history but also clear propaganda pieces for the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi party respectively.
If you genuinely can't see how ZERO DARK THIRTY is more considered and open to interpreatation than either of those two films, then we truly are all banging our heads against brick walls here, but I'll quickly try and distinguish why there's a difference. To me, something both journalism and propaganda share is that they are both attempts to influence the way we think about a topic. Art, conversely, presents you with something then asks you what you think. There are no questions asked by TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and THE BIRTH OF A NATION - in ZERO DARK THIRTY, there's one every few minutes. Some people may not like what those questions are, but the fact that ZERO DARK THIRTY has the balls to ask them cements it as genuine work of art and one of the year's most important films.