The film is centered on the chronology of events beginning on 9-11 and ending with the death of bin Laden, and so it tries to present itself as a sort of 'insider's view' on the entire national trauma of confronting al-Queda chronologically. However, precisely because Bigelow refuses to acknowledge all the facts of the case, the film itself serves no purpose in terms of a documentary recording and instead is a narration with ideological pre-suppositions and coordinates that are meant to be accepted by the audience unquestioningly.
First consider the cast list:
- Jessica Chastain as Maya Lambert, a young C.I.A. analyst
- Jason Clarke as Dan, a C.I.A. intelligence specialist
- Joel Edgerton as Patrick, a U.S. Navy SEAL
- Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, a senior C.I.A. analyst
- Mark Strong as George, a senior C.I.A. supervisor
- Kyle Chandler as Joseph Bradley, Islamabad C.I.A. Station Chief
- Édgar Ramírez as Larry, a C.I.A. Special Activities Division officer
- James Gandolfini as C.I.A. Director
- Chris Pratt as Justin, a U.S. Navy SEAL
- Callan Mulvey as Saber, a U.S. Navy SEAL
- Fares Fares as Hakim, a C.I.A. Special Activities Division officer
- Reda Kateb as Ammar
- Homayoun Ershadi as Hassan Ghul
- Yoav Levi as Abu Farraj al-Libbi
- Harold Perrineau as Jack, a C.I.A. intelligence analyst
- Stephen Dillane as the National Security Advisor
- Taylor Kinney as Jared, a U.S. Navy SEAL
- Mark Duplass as Steve, a C.I.A. analyst
- Frank Grillo as the Red Squadron Commanding officer
- Fredric Lehne as The Wolf, a C.I.A. section chief
- Scott Adkins as John
- Mark Valley as C-130 pilot
- Ricky Sekhon as Osama bin Laden
- John Barrowman as Jeremy
- Christopher Stanley as Vice Admiral Bill McCraven
- Jessie Collins as Debbie
But consider also this phantasmic element of the bin Laden character. Maya analyzes and breaks a major stumbling block by re-looping for days multiple video files of military interviews with Muslim men we can assume have been tortured. This sort of implication is not unlike a scarlet letter connoting violation, rape, the state of having been violated. As Bigelow portrays these figures as mere video screens, projections, rather than flesh and blood figures, a slow sort of de-humanizing begins. By utilizing the elements of media in a manner that both reminds the viewer of real-world elements of this history, such as video dispatches from Osama bin Laden, yet refusing to create a juxtaposition of Maya's media with al-Queda in a manner that would expose both ends of the argument, a notion of superior value of American media over Arab media is created. Indeed, a line of the film includes mention of an al-Jazeera in a dismissive fashion. This notion of explicitly American lives having more value than foreigners is re-emphasized again and again but simultaneously, the very philosophical and moral arguments for the original American experiment are dismissed as cheap utopian thoughts in exchange for prejudiced interrogation and imprisonment without trial that eventually will lead to bin Laden's death, also without a trial.
This of course gets to the core of the argument against war after 9-11. What happened was a criminal organization syndicate, akin to the American mafia, caused a massive amount of death and destruction through a suicide mission. Though it was unreported in 2001, the Taliban was open to full cooperation with the American government, as was Iran, granted that the United States government followed the international norms it was beholden to under the treaties those other nations had signed. However, because that line of behavior would have resulted in a massive political scandal in America and perhaps criminal indictments of members of the Bush cabinet for actions taken during the Reagan presidency, Bush lied to the American public about these diplomatic relations and instead began a terrific and seemingly endless multi-national campaign of carnage that helped fill the portfolio of Dick Cheney's Haliburton pension nicely. Chomsky's reaction, worthy of re-reading, is the underlying foil to ZERO DARK THIRTY. The norm of international and, perhaps most damningly, American law, is presupposition of innocence prior to trial and non compulsion to self-incrimination. Typical reports by the New York Times in 2001 after the attacks were so unbelievably blatant in their refusal to use the word 'alleged' that no trial on earth could have possibly granted these rights to the accused. So we are left with nothing but an excuse for torture, purely based on the agenda of a sitting Vice President who was worried about his role in the international arms trade.
Look again at the characters that torture. Dan of course looks closer to Jerry Garcia than Vlad the Impaler. But Maya's descent is purely racist. As she becomes more brutal and desensitized to violence, the character also becomes noticeably more Muslim! Indeed, by the time she is threatening to send a prisoner to Israel (another instance of negating American extradition law), she is also wearing the full-body niqab and could pass for a women in Taliban-era Afganistan while wearing a black wig that suggests an Oriental identity. This trend of portraying a de-humanization from normal liberal American to brutal and lawless Muslim torturer is a subtle suggestion that, much as Amar is forced to wear a dog collar, there is something inherently animal about Islam itself, something irredeemable. In this sense, Dan in torture mode is not dressing as a lazy hippie, he is sporting the long beard and keffiyeh of a typical Muslim! As a result she is the only American main character with a last name because she becomes most Muslim-like, a notion that also evokes multiple questions around gender. Perhaps this fully-humanized woman, the supposed culmination of everything good about the feminist movement, is made so because she is willing to so de-humanize herself and almost completely disappear into a false projection of Islamic identity.
The most obvious and ugliest instance of this comes with the insertion of two Muslim Americans, one as a major CIA official we first meet performing prayers and the other as a ground soldier who raids the bin Laden compound, another crass invocation of identity politics for capital's sake. By simply using them as random stock figures, devoid of indications of their Islamic identity (Sunni? Shi'ia? Observant? Secular? Performed the Hadj?), they are made into typical American 'Uncle Tom' character types. The final confirmation of this is of course the final shot, when Maya begins to weep. In this moment, finally for the first time in her career able to go anywhere other than a Muslim country, she recognizes how much of her Western identity has been lost. By contrast, the Muslim CIA director and American soldier will remain on the job, dedicated to torture, able to handle such work because they are Muslims.
Obviously it was a terrible loss for both personal and professional acquaintances when James Gandolfini, who plays the Leon Panetta stand-in, died in 2013, but there is indeed some sort of real insight to be gained from the voluminous obituaries, in that they cemented Gandolfini's persona permanently with the character Tony Soprano he played for so many years on HBO. Is it too much to see a clear similarity between the illegal violence and torture Tony Soprano advocates and the illegal violence and torture Panetta oversaw? Furthermore, in simplistic legal terms, does the Gandolfini character name of 'Director' indicate a notion of plausible deniability, is Gandolfini never called Leo because it could make this acknowledgement would make him liable for war crime prosecution?
By perhaps ironic coincidence, after reviewing ZERO DARK THIRTY, I also watched Steve Soderbergh's THE GOOD GERMAN for the first time, a film that could be seen as maybe a prequel to ZERO DARK THIRTY. In that film, Soderbergh uses the norms of 1940's film noir to examine the moral justifications for the original CIA secret mission, the extraction of Nazi war criminal rocket scientists from post-war Germany in Operation Paperclip. Paperclip is by now a rather well-known story, and Soderbergh is essentially disinterested in an over-the-top morality play, as opposed to Bigelow. Instead, juxtaposing army prosecutors and reporters with mute German henchmen and dubious members of American military command, the underlying message is clear: we are no better than those we claim to defeat in wars. Bigelow's film ends on the opposite notion, that they force us to lower ourselves to their level so to defeat them because they are inherently inhuman and unlike us as Americans.