by Jefferson Robbins Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is politically abhorrent, an ideologue's digest of how torture "works" on behalf of democratic governments seeking to defend from or avenge themselves upon terrorism. There's no debate: by means of torture, CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) digs her way from Osama bin Laden's outer network to his inner circle, one, two, three. As journalist Malcolm Harris put it, "That Kathryn Bigelow used to be involved in left aesthetics should make us shiver in fear about who we may yet become." But subtly, in the way Bigelow presents her lead character's view of the battlefield and the flag under which she strives, Zero Dark Thirty betrays mixed feelings about its own ramifications.
Start with the heroine's name: "Maya" in Sanskrit is the illusion of reality that we all experience, which creates a false division between our selves and the wider universe, and ultimately becomes the source of all suffering. ("Maya" also ranks among the top 2,000 most popular names for girls in America. We like our illusions.) Practically all the information Maya gathers through the course of the film is obtained through intermediaries, or through filters. Never once does she punch or strip or waterboard a detainee, but she's there when it happens, and occasionally gives the orders that make it happen. What she does not take away from in-person interrogations, she gathers by the medium of the video screen.
A great portion of Zero Dark Thirty deals with Maya's gradual inurement to seeing. She starts off visibly sickened by the acts she's party to. Agents around her, like the brutal field op Dan (Jason Clarke), try to shield her from direct involvement. "There's no shame in watching on the monitor," says Dan, who keeps pet monkeys at Bagram Airbase in a cage more spacious than the box into which he shuts captured al-Quaeda informant Ammar (Reda Kateb).
But Maya hardens, as one must, at least on the surface. Soon she's leading interrogations on her own, and perusing the videorecordings of other torture victims for clues to bin Laden's refuge. She rubs her eyes at footage of humiliated men hanging by their wrists and grilled for intel, but that could just be the fatigue of a long night's cram session. Soon enough, she's chatting by satphone with her colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) while watching a drone strike that appears to have no more consequence for her than a Pringles ad.
These screens through which Maya views horror tend to pixellate, their images breaking down into the component bits that make up the whole. This is an effect we experience, even in the age of high-definition displays and phenomenal video bitrates, when we lean too close to our monitors. A bit or pixel by itself is the most basic unit of information, but it's useless without context. Try to build a house out of one brick and see how far you get. Maya is gathering bricks, and soon they're all she can see.
As Maya works, the American flag intrudes on her periphery. For the most part, it hangs limp as she interacts with fellow agents in bunkered, insulated CIA stations. It's presented as a mundane office object, always to one side of the frame, never intruding or signaling sharp meaning.
At Camp Chapman, the pivot point for the entire film, the flag snaps awake in the wind and forcefully imprints on our awareness. It is doubled in one shot--a shot that if held for a few more languorous frames would smack of Terrence Malick--by the billowing camouflage netting that shelters Jessica while she awaits a crucial rendezvous.
The flag is pristine; the netting that mirrors it, of course, is ragged and full of holes. The symbol is transmuting before our eyes.
Jessica's death in the field radicalizes Maya with a new sense of exceptionalism: "I believe I was spared so I can finish the job," she says. This is a very American sentiment. When Maya presents her evidence that bin Laden resides in an Abbottabad compound, when she's undercut by her male colleagues, when she identifies herself to the chief of the CIA as "the motherfucker that found this place," the American flag is perched on her shoulder. Upon entering the room, in fact, she's directed to sit next to it.
Maya goes on to observe the Abbottabad raid--again, from a distance--and confirm the assassination of bin Laden. Her job completed with a simple nod of the head, she then boards a C-17 for home, takes her place, and begins to weep.
Maya sits against sagging red cargo netting strung across white acoustic quilting--the ragged flag again. The dusk light is on her ivory skin. The woman who portrayed a Universal Mother in Malick's The Tree of Life is here the symbolic mother of a nation, wounded and wilting, frayed by the bloody work done in delivering it.