Hunting Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

“We don’t know what we don’t know.” Dan (Jason Clarke) sits in a cluttered CIA office, hunkered down at the far right of the screen. His supervisor accosts him as he must, being the designated hard-charging supervisor, asking, “What the hell does that mean?” Dan, being the seasoned field agent with an attitude, comes back with an answer both obvious and deep: “It’s a tautology.”

The moment comes midway in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s already-much-discussed movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the levity is welcome. Everyone’s tense through much of the movie, including viewers, who don’t have to feel that way, because viewers, of course, know how it ends. But what you know is the least compelling aspect of the film, which focuses less on plot, or what is knowable, and more on processes of knowing, how you read, how you assume, how you assess. It asks you to reconsider not only what you now, but how you know.

This problem is not unlike the plot’s problem, as CIA agents have to collect and sift through all manner of data. So that you might share in this experience, Zero Dark Thirty offers the analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain), who joins Dan’s team at film’s start — in a scene where you don’t precisely know what you’re looking at. Two years after September 11, the team is interrogating a terrorism suspect, harshly. The team members wear masks, so that even when you see close-ups of their faces, you’re looking at slits for eyes, hearing shallow breaths. The suspect, Ammar (Reda Kateb) is duly horrified, by their abuses and their apparent indifference. He doesn’t know, as you don’t either, that one of them is Maya: before she removes her mask, you might assume that this brutal-by-definition team is made of men.

What you do know is that Dan does all the talking: it’s his job to menace and cajole the suspect. “If you lie to me,” he warns Ammar, “I hurt you.” Not quite a tautology, but a damn sinister situation if you’re Ammar, who can’t know how his answers are gauged, or whether it even matters if he lies. His questioners might know something he doesn’t, they might be guessing, he might be guessing. Interrogators, generally, mean to learn what they don’t know, but also to make use of what they do. As these interrogators set upon Ammar in a series of scenes, Maya becomes more responsible, ordering abuses even if she doesn’t commit them, as suspects are hung from ceilings, hooded, dog-collared, sleep-deprived, and waterboarded, among other things. At one point, when Ammar’s forced into a small box — one he’s been inside before, as his protests indicate — she appears from his view, a small figure framed by the box edges as the door closes.

This disturbing image is one of just a few suspects’ views, including one where Maya sits across a proper dining table, her taut face framed by a scarf, as she and Dan offer food to Ammar in exchange for tiny bits of answers. That’s not to say the film invites you to identify with a suspect, but it does indicate that the process of reading goes both ways. As the agents are pressured to produce results (“Bring me people to kill!” barks one exasperated officer), Maya’s work turns into a montage of reading, whether she’s standing over suspects or watching hours and hours of interrogation tapes, parsing maps or trying to match photos.

Her pursuit is yours, as Zero Dark Thirty assumes your emotional alliance with US agents’ sense of righteous vengeance (it begins with a black screen and recorded phone calls from people in the WTC about to die). But her pursuit is also a fiction (even before that black screen, the film announces it is based “on first hand accounts of actual events,” whatever that means), a carefully crafted plot that uses Maya’s obsession as its framework (as it also leans on Chastain’s compelling performance). If she impresses her colleagues with her skillful readings, her imperfect ability to interpret “what we don’t know,” she also incarnates the various traumas of such enterprise. Like Jeremy Renner’s bomb defuser in Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s Hurt Locker, Maya embodies costs and losses; unlike him, she has no context or backstory, no home, no life except to hunt bin Laden.

This construction of Maya is a movie device, procedural convention. But it’s also a way for the movie to thematize the problem of not knowing. Maya serves as a way through the fragments, but Zero Dark Thirty is a movie about and made of fragments, products of traumas that range from 9/11 to torture to the Navy SEAL raid. As Maya sorts through lies and edicts, she represents irresolution, the complexity of not knowing.

Such complexity is hinted at in the film when, for instance, Barack Obama announces on 60 Minutes that the US will no longer use enhanced methods: as the CIA agents listen, they voice annoyance that their processes are changed (Dan warns Maya, “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” a line that’s terrifically ambiguous). It’s also hinted at when, more than once, Maya or her teammates make mistakes, mis-assembling fragments, guessing badly at other actors’ intentions. And it’s stated outright when Maya threatens her boss (Kyle Chandler) that if he doesn’t follow her recommendations, he’ll be known as the man who missed the chance to get bin Laden.

This complexity makes it hard to know what to think of Zero Dark Thirty. Some reactions have been formulated as such, like Peter Maas’ caution that it is too “uncritical of the government,” and Jane Mayer’s that it “distorts the difficult history” of US torture.

It’s surely worth thinking through the movie’s relationship to “actual events” as well as the evolving collective memory of same, as well as to effects and politics of torture. But it’s also useful to keep in mind that this thinking is entangled with the problem at the center of Zero Dark Thirty, that knowing and not knowing constitute a process, a process in which people tell lies and get hurt, in which costs can be overwhelming.

RATING 9 / 10