The Moviegoer: Zero Dark Thirty and the Question of “Real Tradecraft”

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

During a typical urgency-inducing CIA staff meeting, a leading operative named George (Mark Strong) is delivering one of his characteristically blow-hard speeches meant to incite his team of intelligence gatherers to a more precise persistence. In a memorable, if seemingly insignificant, moment, he makes a remark to the other operatives that characterizes the nature of much of the war on terror, even if, in the moment, it had a more particular intent, “This is a professional attempt to avoid detection. A real tradecraft.” The term, “tradecraft,” is used in the intelligence community as it relates to modern espionage. It’s a catch-all phrase that covers a range of techniques and activities  conducive to spying and maintaining confidentiality. In addition to the mention from George that it receives, “Tradecraft” is also one of Zero Dark Thirty’s few, eerily minimalist title cards–giving the film’s appropriately reaching narrative arc some semblance of sectioned off order, however slight. Perhaps the pop-espionage term provides an effective entry point for considering Kathryn Bigelow’s cinematically astute procedural.

Zero Dark Thirty is a journalistic account of the ten year tracking of “UBL” (Osama bin Laden). Beginning with a black screen, the film opens with mere audible cries from the phone recordings of 9/11 victims. The film then immediately jumps to a “black site” where Maya (Jessica Chastain)–a young, determined CIA officer reassigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan–joins fellow officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), in the continuing “enhanced interrogation” of Ammar, a detainee who has associations with Saudi terrorists. Jason tortures Ammar with waterboarding, various forms of psychological manipulation, and humiliation tactics. Maya watches, visibly uncomfortable with the scene. And that’s how the torture is framed–in an essentially dehumanizing manner (Glenn Kenny has provided an insightful analysis of how the torture scenes are suggestively framed in a discomforting way). The way Bigelow’s film opens–with the voice-over cries of victims from 9/11, and then the cut to the torture scene at the black site–is suggestive of how the film operates like an ethical cost/benefit analysis of the hunt for UBL. The analysis is instigated by the question of what constitutes an appropriate response to an act of terrorism.

What lengths are we willing to go in pursuit of justice? And how best can the pursuit of justice square with that end? What are the benefits and costs to the War on Terror, and more specifically, to the means we take in the dogged pursuit of UBL? Lastly, and perhaps the most important question of all, is it–in the final analysis–appropriate to blame all of these costs on 9/11 itself? Or do we bear some responsibility for the nature of our response to evil perpetuated against us? Bigelow first frames her film with the unspeakable injustice we’ve endured, then subjects us to a qualitatively dehumanizing response, and this coupled opening frame haunts the rest of the film like a complex, strained question. The ten year pursuit of UBL, a hunt that, in many ways, came to singularly define the pursuit of justice in the minds of Americans, is embodied by Maya. Her tradecraft–the totality of her information-gathering pursuits–becomes the object of our analysis in terms of weighing the positive and negative consequences of the manhunt.

The first way that the theme of “tradecraft” is an appropriate approach to considering Bigelow’s film is the sense in which tracking UBL, and much of the war on terror, happens from a distance. There are several factors that militate against the mistaken suggestion that Bigelow “doesn’t have anything to say” in her film, but foremost among them, I think, is her visual emphasis on the digitized nature of the war. Over at Notebook, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has one of the more excellent analyses of Zero Dark Thirty’s mise-en-scène” in his article “The Monitor Mentality, or a Means to an End Becomes an End in Itself: Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.” He comments,

Within Zero Dark Thirty‘s mise en scène, monitors and live video feeds become interchangeable with their real-world subjects. People become tracking device blips, shapes glimpsed through the spy planes, photos pasted on dry erase boards. Late in the film, Maya stands in the CIA’s Predator control center, gazing at a wall-sized screen; in front of her is the ultimate expression of technocratic warfare—live video of a drone strike.

While I don’t share some of Vishnevetsky’s conclusions, which seem to me too slanted in its analysis of what the film itself suggests (this is, of course, different than saying that one isn’t encouraged to come to more particular conclusions on one’s own based on the film’s manifold suggestions), I do think his account of the film’s distinctly visual themes is accurate, and the clearest example of Bigelow “having something to say.”

A second criticism that has been levied against the film is that we’re not invited to gain any insight into the “inner life” of the characters–Maya in particular (the most notable criticism of this sort has been delivered by Richard Brody). A handful of critics have gone as far as to call Maya a “‘cipher.” While Maya’s character lacks a back story, Jessica Chastain’s excellent performance is, at least for this moviegoer, effective in humanizing the character. Her hazardous, sometimes admirable (sometimes not) emotional investment in her task–from her initial, visible disgust at the enhanced interrogation to her devastation at the death of her friend, Jessica, in a suicide bomb attack–does the in-the-moment work of humanizing Maya. Further, Maya is anything but reducible to the status of beholden to her superiors; instead, she has a reputation for challenging orders from above. Her minimal back story–that she was recruited out of school–is suitable enough to the story. Finally, and most relevant to the particular approach to the film I’ve been suggesting, it fits with the film’s theme qua tradecraft that we aren’t invited to particularly insightful access to the characters’ inner lives. The profession necessitates a kind of distance even from family members. It’s a credit to Bigelow, I think, that the film emphasizes a techno-tradecraft detachment, and yet gives a weight to the search that has us (well, me at least) emotionally invested.

Lastly, I want to return to Bigelow’s fictional-journalistic approach to the manhunt and the accusation that she’s too detached from the material. Of course, the word “detached” is itself relevant to the material. That is, there’s a sense in which Bigelow’s specific political-ideological motivations–her policy positions–are beyond detection. As one who saw the film with friends on both sides of the political aisle, I appreciate the director’s approach; each of my friends appreciated the film. But I’m also troubled by the oft-repeated, sometimes implicit, assertion that because Bigelow doesn’t slant her film in an overly left or right direction, this means she doesn’t have anything to say, or, worse, that her film is “amoral.” I’m not sure this assumption can be construed as anything but a reinforcement of the false either/or that has this country tortured by the illogical. Zero Dark Thirty’s governing ambiguity is not an outgrowth of an amoral director, but resultant from 1. an emphasis on the theme of war-making from a distance, or, the War on Terror qua tradecraft and 2. an acknowledgement of the complexity of the situation–set up in the film’s opening cries and interrogation scene–which is ultimately irreducible to right or left ideological assessments of the Truth.

In these ways, Bigelow’s auteurism is real cinematic tradecraft, but her avoidance of a certain detection is one in which she knowingly means for the American public to be more conversant about our tradecraft agents–indeed, about the very nature of waging war from a distance. But the shadows we’re often not privy to are fringe, off-the-radar regions in which potential, unnoticed evil and good happens. Bigelow’s film speaks to this particular greyness. So the torture scenes aren’t just discomforting in their dehumanization of the detainee, but we’re treated to quite a suggestive scene in which Dan’s dehumanization is implied in his interaction with monkeys. The effectiveness of the torture is not merely moderate at best (inconsequential at worst); the very idea of how we achieve a particular desired effect, or what constitutes effectiveness, is questionable. The fact that a woman is leading the hunt for this particular terrorist and the particular sub-culture from which he comes as it relates to treatment of women colors the film in various intriguing ways.The inevitable raid at the end of the film not only bespeaks a level of admiration for the tactical, sacrificial efforts of our Seal Team, but it’s also a tonally measured response in its sense of relief or celebration. Less noticeable is any sense of a “cool” kill shot of  bin Laden than is the indelible image of crying women and children. The only shot we have of bin Laden’s face is not a direct one, but seen through a photographic image–i.e., a digitized UBL. Maya is the one with the cultivated know-how to identify that it’s bin Laden–not because she knows bin Laden, but because she’s most adept at reading the UBL information.

And, finally, the last shot of the film–indeed, the film itself–is an invitation to consider the extent to which our tradecraft has induced relief and justice in comparison to the extent to which our secret, superior access to information and the means we take in pursuing it has ironically induced disorientation and injustice. The pride we are able to take in being Americans is not an amoral concern, nor is it a morally assured one; rather, it’s quite a complicated issue, one in which we need to be honest about knowing what we know. It’s a question we need to pursue with dogged detection.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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