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"Zero Dark Thirty" Has All the Depth of a John Wayne Movie

May I suggest an amendment to the Constitution? It should be as illegal as it is misleading to open a movie with any statement about its being “based on fact.” That very assertion precedes Zero Dark Thirty, the new picture by Kathryn Bigelow, which has already won several critics’ awards and must be in the running for the Best Picture Oscar.

On September 11, 2001, airline flights hijacked by terrorists attacked famous American buildings. Nearly 3,000 people were killed. This was a cruel and horrifying outrage, even if you know it by heart now. It’s easy to see that political leaders and many Americans might demand revenge. But that wrath and the consequent mission need not smother questions about why the terrorists did what they did. One reason for voicing that hope is that, as I write, the New York Times has a happy picture of Hillary Clinton greeting Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

I’ll come back to that. Zero Dark Thirty begins with the agonized phone calls and news reports of 9/11, whereupon the film develops a narrative of the CIA being charged with the task of vengeance. So two agents—Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke)—interrogate a prisoner attached to Al Qaeda. The man is tortured, and waterboarded. He is shut up in a small box. He is made naked before Maya. She winces at all of this and makes full use of Chastain’s pale face and mournful eyes. But a lead is emerging: there may be a man who acts as a courier to Osama Bin Laden, who has given up making phone calls. And as the process builds, we realize that Maya is obsessed with getting Osama.

This is the significant motivation in what proves to be an action film. In interviews, Bigelow and Chastain have averred that Maya is “based” on an actual woman in the CIA who toiled for years to track down Osama. Of course, this agent cannot be named (or not yet). But she can be built into a silent, rather repressed Maya of Arc, a woman not permitted to take part in the final executioners’ mission, but who stays close and is the moral authority at the end of the film, surveying the corpse and nodding, as if to imply, “Mission accomplished.”

There’s something else achieved in the aura of Maya. Her dedication to the task allows the film not to notice that a president began to scour Afghanistan and Pakistan for Osama but then lost patience with its difficulty and turned to another war. Of course, this lack of political texture (in favor of heroic military flavor) is consistent with the refusal to ask why the terrorists did what they did.

What emerges from these omissions and its powerful diversionary concentration is a film that John Wayne would have approved—though he would have said that if Bigelow and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, were going to take 157 minutes to tell the story, they should have been clearer with it. If it’s based on fact, isn’t it possible to make it lucid, instead of mystifying? I know Jessica Chastain does not resemble John Wayne, but we learn no more about Maya than we do about any of Wayne’s characters. Iconically, she is a woman, and Chastain is the beautiful ghost of our time. She is as dipped in saintly revenge as Shirley Eaton was covered in gold paint in Goldfinger. But family life, romantic thoughts, religion, jokes, or any other idea in her head? Is she a real wreck, like Carrie Mathison in Homeland? No.

Kathryn Bigelow’s direction insists on that impersonality. It’s not just that she wants to direct like a man; she wants to be one of the guys, if the guys are from the units that won the screen version of World War II. Zero Dark Thirty is “researched” (that is to say, based on fact). It had some assistance from the CIA. The crucial compound in Abbottabad is a replica of the real place. When the assassins use night-vision goggles, so does the movie camera, casting a green glow on everything until we are inside the house. Once we are there, after the loss of one of the helicopters, everything goes wonderfully well. Our guys have no casualties and no doubts. So women and children are shot down on the way to getting Osama, and it is all tense and exciting—and a very old-fashioned, self-satisfied movie, with James Gandolfini pretending to be Leon Panetta!

I don’t believe Maya is closer to fact than Gandolfini’s cameo; she’s a figurehead for the movie and a way of making it easier for us to identify with the SEALs who take out Osama. This action is emphatic and very clean, if you can forget the faces of the children huddled together after Osama has been killed. There is a moment in the film where Obama is on television denying torture as a tactic, and we get the blank faces of Americans who know very well that torture has been used. That’s about as far as this timid but martial film is prepared to go into politics. Just as Terrence Malick used Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life as an emblem of faith, persistence, and goodness, so in Zero Dark Thirty the actress stands for American virtue, with the depth and personality of a placard.

If you like World War II films, you’ll enjoy this. But ten years after 9/11, is it sufficient to harp on vengeance, or do we need to work harder to understand the complexities of Afghanistan and Pakistan? (The movie says nothing about which Pakistanis knew what.) Osama was a murderer and a fanatic, and we don’t negotiate with such people or give them character in movies. Or not at first. But a pragmatic settlement often comes at last—it has to. The Japan that sneak-attacked Pearl Harbor was rebuilt through American efforts. The people intent on slaughter in Vietnam are more or less friends again, as they were when Ho Chi Minh was kept alive by American doctors because of his opposition to the Japanese. Reconciliation has occurred in South Africa. Menachem Begin ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, yet he was part of a triumphant moment of peace-making with Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter. And then there’s Martin McGuinness, and Gerry Adams—you should look them up.

Terrorists don’t like us, just as we didn’t like the British once, or various foreign leaders against whom we conspired. And we all had our reasons, as we did in allying ourselves with Stalin, whose victims exceeded even those of Hitler. It is important to remember that the support for fanatics sometimes comes from ordinary people who have grievances. The only end to terror is the exhaustion it breeds and (this is easier said than done, but it needs to be said anyway) an answer to its grievances. Without those things, vengeance is a video game for kids.