Following an opening featuring a black screen and the sounds of 9/11 calls, which lasts for a deeply uncomfortable period of time despite actually being relatively short, Zero Dark Thirty moves into more scenes which are well-played to upset and discomfort an audience. We are introduced to the lead, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is the somewhat unenthusiastic bystander, and later accomplice, in the torture of man believed to have information relating to global terrorism.
Maya appears in these scenes as something of a blank slate, aside from a few awkward looks she is at first also very passive, and despite the film's reasonably lengthy running time she always remains somewhat inscrutable, with the camera often lingering on her blank and seemingly dispassionate stare. She has one purpose it seems. To find Osama bin Laden.
Recalling the singularly focused female protagonists of seventies revenge pictures - Meiko Kaji's 'born for revenge' protagonist in Lady Snowblood comes to mind - Maya has little to no back story in Zero Dark Thirty and despite multiple interactions with co-workers she seems to form no real social bonds. When she later refers to the terrorists as having killed her friends the line almost comes across as laughable due to the vague or non-existent relationships she has fostered with others.
Her main friend in the CIA and the man who we first see torturing prisoners in the early scenes is Dan (Jason Clarke), an educated CIA agent who helps Maya in her quest to hunt down bin Laden. Dan quickly becomes burnt out and returns to America, an attempt to put the torture he has inflicted upon others behind him, although not predominantly due to guilt it would seem but out of some fear of retribution. He even comments to Maya, "You don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee arrives." That Dan is aware that what he is doing may be considered wrong emphasises how warped the situation is within the CIA. Whilst the question of whether torture is wrong or right is not represented on-screen there is certainly the sense that those within the CIA know that what they are doing may not be entirely legal.
The lack of care for this subject by the characters is highlighted in a scene in which Barack Obama is seen on a television stating that America does not torture. Again director Kathryn Bigelow returns briefly to Maya's blank stare before the characters get on with what they were doing. This isn't a subject of particular interest to them despite their close relationship with what Obama is talking about. The characters in Zero Dark Thirty are focused on one idea and there is little to no room for self-analysis.
The controversy that has swirled around Zero Dark Thirty regarding a positive depiction of torture is a massive red herring when it comes to what the filmmakers are actually saying and appears to be largely born out of a significant amount of baggage brought to the film, rather than anything that is up there on the screen. Those who find the torture of human beings despicable, if only this wasn't just part of the human race, will find the actions of members of the CIA in Zero Dark Thirty deplorable and disgusting. Any sense that this led to evidence that helped find bin Laden will, of course, in no way change that. It is also disingenuous to suggest that this is the whole story, as the film presents it. It is made abundantly clear in Zero Dark Thirty that there is a web of information that leads to the discovery of the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and it has been gathered in various ways.
What has not been at the forefront of discussions relating to Zero Dark Thirty, and what was also absent from the mainstream news when bin Laden was actually killed, is the desire for his death that seems to be so often just accepted as a given. "If you really want to protect the homeland you need to get bin Laden." So says Maya, when her dogged pursuit of bin Laden is called into question by her CIA superior Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). When Maya says 'get' she quite clearly means kill. Bin Laden's death is the ultimate goal, not his capture and arrest, and this is never once questioned by any of the characters in the film. It's probably quite likely that it also wasn't discussed in the real halls of government buildings in Langley, Washington and further afield either.
Bin Laden's death is in many ways the end point of Zero Dark Thirty, but the film does not end with a whooping gung-ho mission accomplished celebration of the death of bin Laden. Instead, the final line uttered in Zero Dark Thirty is "Where do you wanna go?" - said by a pilot to Maya - and a lingering shot of Chastain's face. After another brief period of staring into her inscrutable blank stare we see her expression change to one that looks almost despairing, before finally she begins to cry.
It's an open-ended and somewhat bleak note to end on and leaves an audience with an indelible sense of what the past two hours and forty minutes have really been about. There's an emptiness, a pointlessness to the whole endeavour that doesn't give the audience a sense of catharsis, a deep sigh of relief at the end that the job's been done, we're safe now, the bad guys lost. The final emotion is one of despair.
Director Kathyrn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal discard the simple American cinematic tradition of good guys and bad guys and leave the audience with the sense that even in the U.S. government's attempts to guard themselves from threats and seek some cathartic relief for the truly horrible events of 9/11 they have also found themselves in the 'bad guy' role and it comes with a sense of pointlessness and despair which is written all over Chastain's face. As Maya provides a symbolic surrogate for America, the final line in Zero Dark Thirty provides a crucial question for not just a post-9/11 America but a post-bin Laden America. "Where do you wanna go?"