It starts with a black screen. Sirens and the clattering of debris make use of the state of the art sound system.
September 11, 2001.
An emergency responder speaks to a woman trapped on a floor above the impact. They talk back and forth in their 2001 voices. Context is given as her words beat against the screen that is still black, inside your head, and the walls of the theatre that already feel too close.
I could say that I was naïve about the particulars of the film. I knew that it was a movie about the nature of terror. I knew that it was a movie about enhanced interrogation. I knew that it was a movie about torture. I knew that it was a movie about the military, secret ops, intelligence. Navy SEALs. America. The Middle East. However, all those themes stem from a single point and I wasn’t expecting to feel so jolted. I didn’t relax for the duration of the film. 157 minutes. I didn’t sleep the night after. I called my mother and I asked her what that day was like.
At age eight, I was too young to experience the news event of the decade as it was meant to be experienced. An attack on the American mainland. ‘First time ever,’ the adults whispered around me. I have no sense of the day and it holds no shape in my mind. I came of age in the post-terror incubator. I was asked to remove my shoes before going through metal detectors and walk forward when I saw the gesture. I learned to avoid wearing shoes with laces. There was one Bush-era year when we had a connecting flight through O’Hare and every fifteen minutes an announcement was piped through the airport speaker system: “The Security Threat Level is now at orange.”
Zero Dark Thirty is different simply because it doesn’t play by the elementary rules of storytelling. The film has characters and it has settings – the audience soon becomes familiar with aerial shots of CIA black zones spreading across Pakistan’s Karachi desert. However, it lacks any semblance to a conventional plot.
Screenwriter Mark Boal created a movie about a plot in the most literal sense of the word. Any yarn of a storyline is shoved aside by a linear series of vignettes. Characters meet each other in leaps and bounds of space and time. A liaison in a Middle Eastern café could be left dangling after a long, drawn-out scene in CIA headquarters. It’s an interesting narrative choice and pushes the boundaries of audience engagement. Motives play a part in the film. There’s an overwhelming sense that the Bad Guy must be caught at any price but in this 21st century version of cowboys and Indians we never see why the individual characters do what they do – only that they do their jobs. Where do these people come from? Where do they sleep? Who do they love?
There’s a noticeable shift that occurs halfway through the film. After the dates on the screen start to read familiar numbers, the viewer starts to collect memories of recent years. The president is described as analytical. His administration is shown to be more careful than his predecessor’s. Any audience that expected a trigger-happy “shoot ’em up” catharsis would be disappointed. Almost every shot fired was shown to be a careful one.
The element of fake-real was what unsettled me the most. How can one separate fact from fiction and parse them out when they’re presented as photo-realistic? Kathryn Bigelow has made the first newsreel film. Topic: The War on Terror. As I sat watching it, I wondered when I’d be given the mercy of fiction. When the dirty walls of the Abbottabad compound were revealed, I felt like I was watching the news. The dim feeling of recognition only added to the uneasiness.
I became aware that my stomach hurt. If I had an itch I waited five minutes to scratch it. I tucked my hand under my chin and kept it there for the whole movie, too afraid to move. I spent twenty minutes thinking about bringing my legs up and resting my heels on the cushion of my seat. I wanted to tuck my legs against my chest and curl up into a ball right there in the theatre. I closed my eyes when I heard guns being fired. My eyelids fluttered along with the rat-tat-tat of their weapons.
If Bigelow had made a movie that showed a payoff without the information gleaned from torture, I would have called her a liar. But she showed it, because it happened. I don’t want to write about the politicized scenes of torture. I don’t want to remember them. I found myself disconnecting from the movie to preserve a sense of composure. I went to other spaces in my mind when I heard the soft, awful moans of the inmates. The film earned its controversial mantle from the necessary inclusion of those scenes.
It’s not good practice to read over reviews before reviewing a movie for yourself, but I did it anyway. Other writers described the film as gritty, its protagonist as flame haired, its motives as political. I committed the cardinal sin of Google searches and went past the first page of results. I found a wasteland of issue-based results: pro-torture, Oscar bait, America rah-rah-rah, female directors. None of the lingering effects of the film were discussed.
The 24 hour news cycle never could have found its footing were it not for the events of 9/11. The rhetoric of the event moved past factual record and into the arena of News as Spectacle. As a result, watching events unfold on the TV screen now feels like watching a carefully scripted film. However, as one medium cops another, the storytelling techniques are exchanged. The CNN aesthetic is always present in Zero Dark Thirty. As scenes play out, they seem to suffer from a lack of flashy graphics. The modern news aesthetic has informed the film and the audience expects to see scrolling text and solemn anchors woven in to the action onscreen. For a film that claims to be a depiction of real people and real events, it plays closer to the line of parody.
Kennedy Ryan is in her second year of a plain old degree in MIT. She loves white button down shirts, cinnamon gum and Johnny Cash. She hates people who hum in public. Writing this in the third person was really awkward for her.