And it is: Zero Dark Thirty is an astonishing, terrifying movie, head and shoulders above most of the movies up for Best Picture this year (i.e. the movies that weren't Amour). It's a wildly ambitious film with an icy narrative focus, meticulously shot and designed, emotionally devastating and resonant on a level that few movies even try to approach anymore; at the very least it beats the hell out of Argo's one-liners and cheap tricks. In fact, if Get Your War On didn't exist it might even be the defining statement about the War on Terror.
Movies that attempt to peer into the oily depths of the American psyche have been pretty rare since 9/11, and Zero Dark Thirty occasionally seems to be trying to make up for every inch of lost ground. For hours it feels like the movie's whole mission is to reveal—from the barbed wire and sandbags of the black sites to the intelligence-community jargon of its heroes to, of course, the explicit depiction of waterboarding, the movie dedicates itself to showing us how things really were during the War on Terror. And not only through set pieces like the torture scenes; shots upon shots are crammed with Bush-era kitsch like AIM and old-model Toyotas. The movie frantically tosses things into discourse, knowing that over the course of the ridiculously retro decade it chronicles we got perilously close to complete aesthetic detachment from our own time. Fredric Jameson would probably sniff at the idea that a single movie could restore our culture's sense of its own continuing history, but futile or not, that's exactly what Zero Dark Thirty attempts: a total aesthetic excavation of the last decade, leading effectively right up to yesterday.
The movie focuses so much on this mandate that it narratively obliterates Osama Bin Laden, who is a total cipher throughout the movie. Zero Dark Thirty isn't a story about a hunt, isn't even really a procedural. We never see Jessica Chastain staring murderously at picture of her nemesis, and in fact we never get the sense that Bin Laden is doing very much at all, apart from hiding. The bombings and shootings that dot the film are never really attributed to Bin Laden, or even necessarily to Al Qaeda; in many cases they seem as random as gang violence, just workplace hazards whose narrative function is built on our understanding of Central Asia as a place where bad things happen. The bureaucracy embodied by Chastain's Maya operates in a dangerous environment; there's nothing more than weak implication to blame that danger on Bin Laden. There's no villain, just an environment. The hunt for Bin Laden is just a lens through which we watch that environment develop; more in the tradition of The Godfather than The Battle of Algiers, Zero Dark Thirty is an epic about America.
I'd like to dwell on that word, epic, as the basis for the rest of my analysis, because Zero Dark Thirty, for all its journalistic trappings, is well and truly a myth-making film. In fact, I'd argue that the hyper-journalistic style it affects is a critical tool in its myth-making.
Watching Zero Dark Thirty, as I've said, we're struck with the sense of a massive, disembodied process taking place: the American organization is so big and has tendrils in so many places that it's impossible to reveal all of it from the worm's-eye perspective the movie adopts, and the most it can do is point us, through Maya, at the greatest number of salient details in every scene. We never get an inkling of perspective on the causes or even many of the consequences of the American war machine; word just comes down from on high that torture is out, and so torture is out.
The point, though, is that the disembodied processes that govern life in Zero Dark Thirty start to feel a lot like magic. Their causes are obscure and their effects are unquestionable. American empire moves in mysterious ways. This is what really poisons Zero Dark Thirty: its realism is just a stylistic affectation, skin-deep, like its investigation of changes in American society.
This rule is best demonstrated by its exception, when Maya gets on a helicopter out of Central Asia. In maybe the only overtly "literary" moment in the movie, the pilot asks her where she wants to go next, and she stares at him, baffled, before bursting into agonized tears. This is a mawkish way of getting at the central message of the movie—that there's nowhere to go after we've killed Bin Laden—but it's redeemed by Jessica Chastain's heartbreaking performance. For just a few moments, the movie has the ability to see the forest for the trees, and Maya seems like a national avatar, broken enough by the War on Terror to stand in for all of us. It's raw catharsis, and it's all the more shocking because the only comparable end to a movie we've had for years is in The Social Network, which hinges on our jealousy and contempt for Mark Zuckerberg. Zero Dark Thirty's almost feels redemptive. But even this ending is ultimately hollow, because Maya's ascension to national avatar status comes too late; the whole movie has focused on her as a single actor in a complex system, a rigorously independent character who signifies nothing, and now suddenly she becomes a metaphor. Maybe it feels like a tragedy, but a personal tragedy, not a national one.
And that's the problem with Zero Dark Thirty: it focuses relentlessly on the personal at the expense of the national. The passive-voice ills that befall its antiheroes damage their sensitivities, but like Zizek identified in his review, the movie never gestures towards any damage to a whole ethical system, and certainly never looks for agents to attach to that passive voice. Maya's life is convincingly ruined by her pursuit of Bin Laden and the changing world around her, but the movie never imputes anything more far-reaching than that. The hunt for Bin Laden only hurts Maya, and the movie only lets Maya become a pharmakos at the very end, once the danger of disrupting its gearheaded visual style has passed.
I think this is what the movie's critics must be driving at when they accuse it of "normalization"—the movie's fetish for reporting detail necessarily means taking that detail at face value, seeing it as the inevitable product of social changes beyond our ken. It accepts ethical degradation dutifully, and restricts itself to examining the implications of that degradation insofar as they fit into the lives of its characters.
This is exactly how cultural hegemony works: it makes top-down change seem mythical, necessary and universal, reserving compassion and anger for the smallest and most ineffectual scales. Zero Dark Thirty implies that injustice is systemic and not simply interpersonal, but it's only an implication, and the only responses it can imagine to that systemic injustice are despair or, worse, obedience.
I've taken it for granted that this movie is attempting to make a political statement about the decay of the United States, because despite protests in support of its "apolitical" nature, Bigelow's avowed pacifism and the personal tragedy of the ending convince me that the movie is, if not a social critique, at least social. In this, I think it betrays one of the most disturbing trends in liberal thinking today: even in political movies like Zero Dark Thirty, "systemic injustice" is treated as a basically unknowable force, a fog that hangs in the air or, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, creaks in social machinery that we can't understand. It's de-historicized, de-materialized, turned into magic. This is the failure, both aesthetic and political, of Zero Dark Thirty. For all its reportage, it's really oriented towards mystification, and for all the noise it makes, it's as critical of the bureaucracy as a sheaf of paper in one of Maya's binders.