Zero Dark Thirty is the story of one CIA officer’s obsessive pursuit of Bin Laden and of justice for the victims of 9/11. Maya, played by Jessica Chastain with her usual excellence, is a young woman assigned to work in Pakistan. She starts off her assignment by witnessing her colleague Dan’s interrogation and torture of a detainee who may have important information. The torture scenes in the first portion of the movie, which immediately stirred political and critical controversy, are difficult to watch. We see and experience Maya’s discomfort with the degradation of the man Dan is interrogating, but as she moves up the ranks seeking more information, she follows suit.
The movie seems to me not so much neutral in regard to these tactics as it is conflicted. The operatives involved don’t give away much beyond Maya’s initial visible distaste. Dan throws himself into the role, but it’s not clear to viewers that he is either enjoying it or hating it. A couple of times, shots of the “black site” in Pakistan give viewers brief glimpses of detainees being held in big outdoor cages, two to a cage. These men have no privacy, no shelter, and no apparent hope.
Around the corner is a cage that holds monkeys. Tough guy Dan finds some solace in feeding and talking to the monkeys. One day he’s at the monkey cage, distraught that the monkeys have died because they hadn’t been fed. The obvious comparison is that there are men in sight in basically the same cages, at least some of whom have had food and water withheld. Viewers can’t help but see the irony. Is anyone ever justified in treating human beings with less dignity and respect than animals? Even when the result might be information leading to justice for a horrible crime? And it’s actually not obvious that the torture is ever the direct reason for information gained.
When Dan eventually leaves Pakistan, he says that he needs to do something more normal for a while. Maya does not appear to have that much perspective as she continues her single-minded search for clues to Bin Laden’s whereabouts.
The acting and pacing is tight, but viewers would do well to consider their tolerance for disturbing scenes and some offensive language. Like Argo, another Americans-in-the-Middle-East thriller, Zero Dark Thirty keeps the suspense rolling even though we already know the outcome. And like Argo, it’s hard for the average viewer to know what portion is truth and what portion is fiction. But Zero Dark Thirty is much darker, and it offers more fodder for a discussion of the morality and ethics of war.