Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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When we think of spy movies, our minds instinctively gravitate towards certain conventions: nifty gadgets, exotic locales, dangerously beautiful women, nefarious conspiracies—and, eventually, fights, shootouts and car chases that obliterate any possibility of secrecy or deniability. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; those movies are popular for a reason, and I loved Skyfall and the Bourne trilogy as much as anybody. But that’s entertainment espionage, refracted through a mass-market Hollywood lens, and as fun as it often is, it’s not the only way to make a compelling spy movie. There have always been those that take a more subdued approach, aiming instead to immerse us in a shadowy, paranoid world where trust, certainty, and moral clarity are luxuries the characters can ill afford. Tomas Alfredson’s gripping 2011 thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is something like a perfect distillation of this understated aesthetic: relatively light on dialogue, heavy on atmosphere, chock-full of haunted faces, heavily weighted silences, anxious framing and drab, cheerless colors—and yet, all so masterfully done that it never crosses the line into inanity or self-parody.

That’s not surprising, though, given the director’s skill set and the venerable material he’s working from. Alfredson grew up in a Swedish filmmaking family, started out working for various TV stations, and eventually became (and apparently still is) the resident director for a nationally famous comedy group, with whom he made his first feature in 2004. His only other film before 2011 was the internationally acclaimed Let the Right One In (2008), a bloody, very spooky, weirdly sweet pre-teen vampire horror/romance that announced his talent for creating onscreen atmosphere as intoxicating as it is unsettling.

There are no vampires and very few children in Tinker Tailor, but it’s an ideal fit for Alfredson’s brooding style; teamed up again with the gifted cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, he delivers a master class in creating tension and excitement through restraint. The color scheme, as we’ve noted, is gloriously dreary, dominated by grays and browns, dull blues and greens, and sickly shades of red and orange. This serves to immerse us in the setting—the gloom of Britain in winter as well as the aesthetic awfulness of the 1970s—and to echo the inner life of our protagonist, George Smiley, and the rest of the characters, mostly aging spies who are all, to one degree or another, emotionally and morally worn down by the life of secrets and lies that they’ve committed to. Even a comparatively free-wheeling interlude with the younger field agent Ricki Tarr in Istanbul (the only part, if memory serves, where we see proper sunlight) is nonetheless similarly muted—even here, we’re still moving in the same devious world.

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Which is not to say the movie isn’t visually stunning. Alfredson creates beautifully clean and precise images—it’s just that they’re composed to evoke anxiety and dread. On multiple occasions, we find ourselves looking from ground level at a figure in an upper-floor window, a time-honored way to induce a sense of being watched. Even more strikingly, during that Istanbul flashback, we see a whole scene of domestic conflict and abuse from Tarr’s point of view: through binoculars trained on the big windows of the hotel suite from a building across the street, which both heightens the feeling of surveillance and makes the Russian woman, Irina, all the more mysteriously alluring. Whenever possible, Alfredson shoots his actors with other objects (walls, doorways, furniture, trees) crowding them slightly in the frame, echoing their boxed-in, paranoid mindset. He favors static, carefully composed shots—appropriate, given the story’s subject matter and stately pacing—but he also makes judicious use of the ultra-subtle, ultra-slow zoom in, another textbook way to suggest encroaching danger. Indeed, all of the camera moves, even quite complex ones, are deliberately paced, never more conspicuous than they need to be. And the effect of all this is only heightened by skillful editing, which Alfredson and Dino Jonsäter provide, cutting between these various shots in a way that rarely draws attention to itself, but still squeezes maximum tension out of each scene.

This policy of restraint is consistent throughout the movie, even at overtly dramatic moments that tempt towards greater showmanship. As pensive as Tinker Tailor is compared to a Bond flick, it’s not without violence, and while Alfredson portrays it starkly, he tends to cut around it, opting to focus on the gruesome aftermath rather than the act itself and let our imagination fill in the rest. His conveys other major plot points in a similarly measured way, through precisely intoned lines of dialogue and subtle visual cues that play off of the understated style of the rest of the movie. One example comes towards the end, when we return once again to Jim Prideaux’s ill-fated mission in Budapest. The camera pushes in on a man we now suspect to be the Soviet spymaster Karla (his face still cleverly obscured by shop window lettering), and then on to the detail that finally confirms it: Smiley’s engraved lighter. The music indicates that this is significant, but so too does the way the camera moves: quickly and somewhat unsteadily, a motion that recalls ‘big reveal’ moments in older movies and also notably stands out in comparison to the subtle camerawork in the rest of the movie. Most spectacular of all, at least from a technical standpoint, is the scene where Smiley extracts a key piece of information from the Eastern Europe expert Toby Esterhase. Smiley essentially kidnaps him, a much more aggressive tactic than we’ve previously seen, and brings him to an airfield to threaten him with extradition back to the Eastern bloc. Alfredson and van Hoytema frame the two figures in a wide shot down the runway, using a seriously massive telephoto lens[i] that compresses the space to such a degree that the plane seems to be right on top of them from the moment it lands—a vivid illustration of what a terrifying prospect it represents for Toby.

Alfredson’s other secret weapon is exceptional sound design, which captures the setting in all its clackety analogue glory and also proves to be a potent dramatic tool. Sharp, sudden noises, like knocks and gunshots, ring out like thunderbolts amid the hush that usually predominates. Irina’s capture is deftly signaled by the ominous scraping of a sliding door, even before we see the Soviet agents behind it. A quick view of the captured Prideaux, bruised and forced to listen to disturbing, scream-like noises, tells us all we need to know about his interrogation by the KGB. On multiple occasions, Alfredson deploys the low, slow-building rumble of passing metro trains, cranking up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. A pop song on the radio adds a dash of humor to one scene, only to resurface later as a chilling signal to Smiley’s lieutenant, Peter Guillam, that they’re being watched.

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Fittingly enough, all facets of Alfredson’s understated approach are on full display in the movie’s climactic scene, when Smiley and his motley crew spring a trap for Karla’s double agent. Tarr hijacks the Paris office at gunpoint to set the ruse in motion, and Mendel, their colleague from the Special Branch, notes the arrival of all four suspects at the ‘Circus’ (MI6) headquarters in ominous tones, but when the mole then reveals himself by rushing to alert his Soviet handler, there’s no fight, no chase, and no shootout. Instead, we’re with Smiley in the house that serves as their secret meeting place, waiting and listening. We hear the soft but unmistakable sounds of one car pulling up and footsteps entering the house, and then another. Then we get Smiley in a chair and a long, deliciously slow pan over to reveal the man he’s holding at gunpoint: Bill Haydon, his treachery finally confirmed. It’s a climax so uncommonly quiet that we might not even register it on a first viewing, but it’s wonderfully effective nonetheless, creating thrills entirely through narrative setup, sound design, and careful camerawork.

Alfredson’s skillfully restrained suspense would be fun to watch in any context. But it also happens to be perfectly suited to this classic story by the great scribe of the somber (you might say ‘anti-Bond’) school of spy fiction: John le Carré, who worked for the British intelligence services in the 1950s and 60s and has spent the decades since writing consistently excellent espionage novels, full of soulfully beleaguered characters; heartless, heavily bureaucratized agencies; and vaguely defined, morally murky conflicts. No layperson can know for sure how realistic this is, and yet, almost by default, it feels more honest than Bond-ian action and adventure; we know that super-spies aren’t real, but these subtler stories, especially when populated by memorable characters as le Carré’s are, carry an enthralling air of credibility. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, first published in 1974, is universally considered to be one of his best works, and it is indeed a masterpiece of the spy genre, with its richly imagined world of Cold War intrigue, its twisty, timeless narrative about the search for a double agent at the top of British intelligence, and the sneakily powerful emotional (and philosophical) impact that it ultimately carries.

And this movie is a prime example of smart adaptation; even before Alfredson works his stylistic magic, the screenplay, by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, has already done a lot of crucial legwork in translating the story to the screen. Which is no easy task; as dour and cynical as le Carré’s characters are, they tend to talk quite a lot, and the omniscient narrator often delves liberally into backstories and the intricacies of both international and office politics. His plotlines, meanwhile, are elaborate even by spy fiction standards (critics eagerly break out the great word ‘labyrinthine’ to describe them)—and few more so than the sprawling Tinker Tailor. O’Connor and Straughan wisely don’t attempt to include all of that, partly because it would be impossible in a feature-length movie, and partly because it’s already been done, inimitably, in a six-hour BBC miniseries from 1979, anchored by Sir Alec Guiness’s definitive performance as Smiley. Instead, they manage to streamline the plot considerably while maintaining its essential structure; apart from a couple of minor changes in setting (Prague becomes Budapest, Hong Kong becomes Istanbul), the major twists and turns of the Smiley’s hunt for the mole are pretty much faithfully replicated. And even more importantly, the writers are able to preserve, for lack of a better word, the soul of the novel: the idiosyncratic characterization and deep undercurrents of regret, longing and existential malaise. This is the main reason, I think, why the movie doesn’t play like the rushed highlight reel of a richer narrative, and why the story in general is so rewarding to revisit even after we know how it ends—it’s exciting, but also genuinely moving, grounded in recognizably human psychology.

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To capture all of this in two short hours, O’Connor and Straughan craft exceptionally concise and expressive dialogue, but they’re also keenly of how much can be expressed without words. Consider the great, wordless scene where one of Mendel’s bees gets trapped in the car, and “the other characters flail and panic while Smiley calmly opens the window and lets it fly off—his approach to spy-catching in a single image.”[ii] Even the fairly lengthy opening credits contain a lot of narrative development, again without dialogue: a trip through the interior spaces of the Circus builds atmosphere, Control’s death advances the story, and the empty routines of Smiley’s life in forced retirement—including a trip to the optician, where he picks out this movie’s version of Guinness’s iconic, thick-rimmed glasses—develop character. A more complex example is Smiley’s serially unfaithful wife, Ann, a full supporting character in the book whom the screenwriters include only in fleeting moments, her face never fully revealed. Her identity as a character is lost, but her role in the plot is preserved, and it’s still clear what she represents for Smiley’s character: a symbol of his awkward, agonized relationship with the real world beyond the Circus, a key weakness for Karla to exploit, and an illusory but powerful ideal to keep fighting for. The screenplay is a model of this kind of quiet expressiveness, and with Alfredson firmly on the same page, the result is an oddly gripping sort of thriller, in which the dialogue is spare and the pacing is slow, but there’s always a lot happening—narratively, thematically, emotionally, or sometimes all three at once.

Alfredson is also blessed with a cast that’s remarkable even compared to other large, star-studded ensembles. John le Carré characters seem to be, for British actors, a bit like founding fathers or Civil Rights leaders for American actors—if one of those movies is in the works, everybody is going to be interested. Those assembled here are all seasoned veterans, able to deliver every line, even an ostensibly unremarkable one, for maximum effect. In a pivotal early exchange between Smiley and the government undersecretary Lacon, Simon McBurney ratchets up the sense of anticipation via deliciously loaded intonation of a simple phrase: “The thing is…” When the late, great John Hurt, with his magnificently craggy features and singular voice (aptly described by one journalist as “nicotine sieved through dirty, moonlit gravel”[iii]) tells Prideaux, “There’s a rotten apple, Jim; we have to find it…”, it adds tension and also hints at Control’s increasing obsession and paranoia. When Smiley takes his leave of the recently ousted analyst Connie Sachs, Kathy Burke’s poignant (offscreen) delivery of her final line (“If it’s bad, don’t come back. I want to remember you all as you were…”) does a great deal to capture the emotional stakes of the investigation and the history these characters share. It would be tedious to run through every example, but suffice it to say that all the main actors have their share of similarly choice moments. And it’s not just about line delivery; they know how to make the most of every bit of screen time, speaking or otherwise, so we get a clear (if not always especially deep) sense of who all the principal supporting characters are. Which is especially impressive when you think back on it and realize that in a movie running barely over 2 hours, most of them have only a few scenes to really work with.

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The key to it all, of course, is Smiley himself, masterfully portrayed by Gary Oldman, a certifiably great actor who was nevertheless not the most obvious choice for the role; after a career of being “often asked to play kinetic, frenetic characters,” he has said, he was “thrilled to be asked to play someone still.”[iv] The manic energy that defines Oldman’s earlier work is nowhere to be seen in the owlish Smiley, a thoroughly unremarkable, even outwardly pathetic figure memorably described by le Carré as “one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” Such blandness is his nature, and Oldman makes it feel authentic, but he also conveys how Smiley has learned to use it to his advantage—that beneath the nondescript exterior lies a man with a penetrating intelligence and a scrupulous but potent capacity for ruthlessness, well aware of the value of being underestimated. Oldman delivers, in one critic’s words “a fascinatingly gripping performance that doesn’t so much command the screen, dominating it with shouts and displays of obvious technique, as take it over incrementally, an occupation that echoes Smiley’s steady incursion into the mole’s lair.”[v]

This dovetails perfectly with Alfredson’s restrained style, which is also about creating suspense with as little overt flair as possible; there’s always a certain intensity about Oldman’s Smiley, even when he’s technically doing very little. When he doesn’t speak at all for the first 18 minutes, it’s something of a gimmick, but we’re still learning a lot about the character: how keenly observant he is, the deference shown to him by colleagues, how carefully considered every word and action is—so that when he finally does speak, responding to Lacon’s request to look into Tarr’s theory, we’re on tenterhooks, even though all he’s saying is that he’s retired. But then Lacon mentions that Control also believed in the Soviet mole, and Oldman signals a clear shift as Smiley’s mind begins to whir, rapidly assessing his next move: Okay, this could be real, the first thing to know is how Lacon reacted…and thus his first question: “What did you say to him?” And from that moment on, he’s fully locked in, hunting for the answer in his own discreetly effective way—meticulously investigating every lead, making deft use of his colleagues and their skills, steadily accruing the only weapons that count in this world: information, and the leverage that comes with it.

The question remains, though; why does this movie stick with us? Smiley is ultimately an easy character to root for, a master of his craft and a figure of some pathos, but that alone doesn’t quite explain how this story continues to resonate so deeply. On the surface, it never goes beyond its brief as a suspenseful, unusually affecting spy thriller. And while the setting and context feel more and more like relics of the distant, dusty past with each passing year, it’s not without contemporary relevance; as Andrew O’Hehir puts it, “I don’t think John le Carré or much of anyone else laments the demise of Soviet communism, and all the spies of the Circus and the CIA and whatever the KGB now calls itself have kept right on going without it. But the question of whether Western democracy has recovered from its Cold War hangover, from its addiction to secrets and spying and the erosion of both rights and liberties, certainly remains topical.”[vi]

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More importantly, however, the story works because it engages poignantly, if mostly indirectly, with facets of the human experience that most everyone can relate to on some level. It delves into questions about loyalty and identity; at the end, after Haydon is exposed as the mole, he tells Smiley that his choice wasn’t based on some rational assessment of which side is better, that it was just as much an “aesthetic” decision—and in turning against a West that has “become so very ugly,” he seems to see some reclamation of agency. Smiley is no fanatical Western ideologue, but the one and only time he raises his voice is in response to that idea, countering that in the end, Haydon is just another tool for Karla being used in service of the same ugly struggle that has brought out so much nastiness in both sides. The Second World War is referred to only briefly, but the memory of it lingers heavily over the movie, as the characters now find themselves living off the past (like Connie) or trying in vain to recapture it (like Bill and the others). As nostalgic as he may be, Smiley knows that the moral clarity of that conflict is never coming back. Now it’s all various shades of gray; both sides are equally rapacious, domineering, and ruthless in the end, so he serves the one he can call home, however flawed it may be. It’s this same sentiment that impels him to search for the mole in the first place. Lacon muses, “Damn it, George; it’s your generation, your legacy…” and Smiley still wants that to mean something—out of loyalty to the country he was born to, and even more so to the people he’s fought with.

This gets at another reason why the complex machinations of this rarefied world feel so emotionally relevant. For all the rational analysis and deductive reasoning that the central conflict entails, it’s driven just as much by interpersonal factors that we can all understand: friendship, love, ambition, rivalry, and all the other dimensions of human interconnectedness. At the end, it becomes clear that on some level, Prideaux knew Haydon was the mole all along; a visit he paid Haydon before the Budapest mission was an unspoken warning, and eventually leads to a clue that’s crucial to Smiley’s investigation. Meanwhile, the broader chess match between Smiley and Karla feels more personal than ideological, their moves heavily influenced by what they revealed to each other in a single brief meeting decades earlier.

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On a similar note, the movie is also, in an elusive but profound way, about the pull of the past—how we can never really escape it, how it’s constantly influencing our present selves. The investigation takes place along a certain timeline, but as is often the case in le Carré’s stories, most intelligence gathering involves reaching back into the past—reviewing documents, questioning witnesses, revisiting memories. In the book, Smiley’s capacity for reminiscence is described as approaching an altered state of consciousness, sinking so deeply into his recollections that he nearly loses all sense of time and place—a valuable skill to have when considering which of your close associates has actually been a traitor for years. In this story, as in the real world, finding the answer isn’t just about gathering evidence; it’s also about confronting history, making a full accounting of actions taken, secrets kept, and lies told. And as such, I think Smiley’s hunt for the mole is also about the lies we tell ourselves—the way we let emotion shape memory, rationalizing and papering over the parts we don’t want to know or can’t face, in service of what we want the truth to be. Along with the machinations of Karla and his own erstwhile colleagues, this is what Smiley overcomes to find the truth, to see his world as it truly is—and it makes him, in his own watchful way, heroic, because we know from our own lives what a fraught prospect that is.

Amid all the subtle and overt changes necessary to compress that story into two hours, Alfredson, Oldman, and everyone else involved manage to preserve that crucial element air of emotional honesty, making Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a top-notch adaptation and a masterwork of paranoid spy cinema.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] 2000 mm, to be exact! (For reference, most shots in most movies are filmed on lenses ranging from 24 mm to 100 mm.) A quick explainer, if you’re interested: https://www.redsharknews.com/production/item/3195-what-a-2000mm-lens-can-do-for-you

[ii] http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2011/12/16/ty_burr_says_updated_tinker_tailor_as_compelling_as_the_original_thanks_to_gary_oldman/?page=full

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/mar/12/features.magazine#maincontent

[iv] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-xpm-2011-dec-09-la-et-tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-20111209-story.html

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/movies/tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-with-gary-oldman-review.html?ref=movies

[vi] https://www.salon.com/test/2011/12/09/pick_of_the_week_bleak_and_brilliant_tinker_tailor_soldier_spy/

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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In these heated days—when controversy seems to arise from everything that everyone does, all the time—the idea of a single movie inciting a fierce nationwide debate can seem like a relic of a naive and distant past. And yet, that’s exactly what happened just seven years ago upon the release of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s sweeping account of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Already it’s easy to view the movie, what it depicts and the concerns it grapples with, as belonging to a recognizably different era in American history; as far as I can see, it hasn’t become newly insightful in the feverish, cranked-to-11 politics of today. But it’s worth revisiting now for many reasons: it remains as immersive and disturbing a piece of fact-based filmmaking as Hollywood has ever produced; it offers compelling insights about an episode of recent history that’s ongoing, with no end in sight; and the questions it explores, about morality and nationalized revenge, are just as relevant today as they were back then.

It’s worth noting what an outlier Zero Dark Thirty still is. Despite many significant developments in both politics and filmmaking over the past seven years, there’s never been a fiction film quite like it: written with such extensive access to sensitive material and directed with such close attention to realism, telling a true story so inherently thrilling and so emotionally significant to the target audience. It’s an epic—set all over the world, spanning nearly a full decade, and exploring timeless themes—but it’s also a ripped-from-the-headlines procedural that delves into the nitty-gritty of contemporary geopolitics. There’s so much to unpack here (I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that packs more into 2 hours and 45 minutes) that it’s hard to know where to begin. But in any great movie, you can be sure that the opening will be highly significant, and this one is no exception.

Indeed, much of the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty centers on its infamous first half-hour, with its graphic portrayal of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation.’ But, crucially, the movie actually begins a few moments earlier, with a black screen and a short mélange of actual sound bites from 9/11, including a few stomach-turning clips of victims in the final moments of their lives. This brief prologue caused a good deal of controversy in itself, with critics claiming (reasonably, I think) that using the voices of the real victims in a fiction film, sometimes without the explicit consent of the families, is ethically dubious at best. But the sequence is undeniably powerful, and it serves an important purpose. 9/11 was such a paradigm-shifting event that it’s already mythologized in the American psyche—arguably ever since the government started invoking it to justify the War on Terror, and certainly at the time of Zero Dark Thirty’s release. The prologue forcefully reminds us what this increasingly abstract event actually entailed—the horror and the real-life tragedy.

Then it’s two years later, and we’re immersed in another whirlwind of human suffering as an unnervingly easygoing CIA agent named Dan (Jason Clarke) carries out a brutal interrogation. It’s convincingly established that Ammar (Reda Kateb, doing excellent work in the thankless role of the century), is somehow involved with al-Qaeda, yet it’s hard to imagine any decent person not feeling repulsed as the bruised, helpless detainee is waterboarded, deprived of sleep, sexually humiliated, and finally locked into a horribly small wooden box. This is the movie’s first signal that it’s not simply propaganda in support of such practices; it’s impossible to watch these scenes and conclude, as the Bush administration long tried to claim, that these techniques don’t constitute torture. Bigelow confirms that this is a textbook violation of human rights, while also reminding us of the incident that initially let us convince ourselves it was necessary. (Sure, Dick Cheney is enough of a cartoon villain that he probably wanted to do this stuff anyway, but he still needed something like 9/11 as a pretext.) So we have one atrocity, the torture of detainees, in response to another: the 9/11 attacks.[i] The basic arc of the narrative to come is so well known that we already have expectations about what sort of movie this will be: part espionage thriller, part combat picture. It has elements of both, but the opening makes clear that this is, first and foremost, a movie about revenge. And if there’s one part of the American soul that’s just as forcefully present today as it was back then, it’s the desire for revenge against those who cross us.

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Like all the best revenge stories, Zero Dark Thirty uses its subject matter to examine some difficult themes—trauma, violence, obsession, and the moral cost of payback. It’s not surprising that so many people, especially those of us who consider the CIA’s use of torture a moral abomination, would be upset that the movie doesn’t present the hunt for bin Laden in a way that explicitly validates our position. That complaint is not unfounded, but it reflects an unwillingness to grapple with a deeply uncomfortable issue, not to mention a certain disdain for what film as an art form is capable of. If you’re willing to ascribe worth only to movies that reduce the mess of real life to a simplistic moral equation and come down on your side of it—well, all I’ll say is that you’re depriving yourself of most of the best movies ever made. One could claim, for instance, that The Godfather glorifies the Italian Mafia because it takes their point of view and depicts them as more than heartless monsters; that case is there to make. But people rarely do, because they realize that they’d have to ignore many significant elements of the movie, including most of what makes it interesting. Anyone who wants to dismiss Zero Dark Thirty as a nationalistic, torture-glorifying revenge fantasy can find everything they need to make that case, too.[ii] But that would be textbook bad analysis: determining the moral stance of a complex work based on a few offensive elements, and willfully disregarding pretty much everything else the movie says, shows, and implies.

Most attacks against the movie boil down to essentially this: that it depicts torture as a valuable tool in the hunt for bin Laden. There are many moments in the movie that support that idea, but if you’re willing to look deeper, you’ll find a great many others that challenge, confuse, or refute it. It’s true that in the beginning, Dan goes to work on Ammar with gusto, using exactly the sort of gloating, jingoistic language that advocates of torture might nod along with. Meanwhile, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the newly arrived analyst who will become our protagonist, is shaken by what she sees but does nothing to stop him, and coldly rebuffs Ammar’s pleas for help. It’s discomfiting because they’re supposedly on ‘our side,’ but it’s also sensible characterization—they’re committed front-line fighters in the War on Terror, and they’re also employees carrying out orders from their superiors. More importantly, though, nothing comes of it; Ammar ends up incoherently rattling off random days of the week when Dan asks him about the next attack, and then we cut to civilians being mowed down in Saudi Arabia as Dan and Maya watch the images on TV, stewing in their failure to stop it.

Of course, Ammar does finally produce a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a trusted al-Qaeda courier and the lead that Maya will eventually use to track down bin Laden. Once again, though, the role of torture is tricky—Ammar only gives it up when Dan and Maya sit him down, give him some food, and interrogate him without violence,[iii] and yet, he only does so because of Maya’s bluff, which relies on his disorientation after torture and the threat of more to come. But as the story progresses, we learn that the CIA already had the same information from other sources; we see Maya combing through old interrogation tapes in which multiple detainees (some under duress and some not) mention Abu Ahmed as well. It turns out that the CIA even has his real name—something even Ammar didn’t know—in a file that got lost in the early years after 9/11. We’ve seen how driven Maya and her colleagues are; it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have found it eventually. It’s never explicitly stated, but the implication is clear: torture played at least some role in Ammar’s confession, but the CIA could have found the same information using more orthodox methods, and probably would have done if they hadn’t been so caught up in spinning intelligence for the pointless Iraq war and torturing people for unreliable information.

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The confession isn’t the only example that the movie’s detractors cite as evidence of a pro-torture stance. Much is made of the fact that later on, Maya herself presides over the torture of Abu Faraj, a senior al-Qaeda commander. But once again, it gets her exactly nowhere; in the very next scene, she’s frustrated and dismayed that it isn’t working. It’s also true that in the same scene, Dan warns Maya about the changing politics back home, advising her to be careful with the detainees lest she put her career in jeopardy. But, significantly, neither of them seems particularly disappointed or angry about this; although Dan insists he’s fine, he’s clearly troubled by the brutal things he’s done, to the point that he’s transferring back to Langley. In a sign of his growing disillusionment with the methods they’ve been using, he even declines her offer to interrogate Faraj himself. There’s another important moment soon afterwards, when we see the newly elected President Obama on TV, insisting that under his leadership, “America doesn’t torture.” Maya’s reaction is studiously hard to read. She doesn’t seem pleased or relieved, but neither does she sneer, throw up her hands, or hurl something at the screen—none of which would be out of character if she were outraged by this news. Instead her expression is neutral, contemplative, as if she’s simply thinking, “Well, I guess this is what we’re doing now.” The point is reiterated soon afterwards, when a CIA higher-up named George (Mark Strong) gathers Dan, Maya, and their colleagues together and rips them all a new one for doing such a terrible job finding terrorists. His language is bellicose (“Bring me people to kill!”), but his implied point is clear: what they’ve been doing up to now has failed miserably. And this is where they start making real progress—when they stop torturing detainees and devote themselves to the painstaking detective work of normal intelligence gathering: combing through files, tapping phones, cultivating local sources, and studying satellite imagery.

It’s complicated, though—it always is with Zero Dark Thirty—because the same character also has one of the movie’s most seemingly pro-torture lines. When the National Security Advisor demands proof that the mystery occupant of that famous house in Abbottabad is bin Laden and not some other criminal kingpin, a frustrated George complains: “You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program.” With a shrug, the Advisor replies, “You’ll think of something,” and it comes across as classic bureaucratic waffling. Except, George and the others do think of something; they do more research, come back with stronger evidence, and gradually convince the rest of intelligence community (and finally the unseen president) that their assessment is worth acting on. And in this they are hindered, not helped, by the fact that torture played a role in the initial confession. In a surprising reversal, Dan, the one who carried out the interrogation, is among those least convinced that the information is reliable. His doubts are reflected in the rest of the CIA brass, who offer only tentative agreement that bin Laden is really there. The implication is that if they’d found the house without torture (and we’ve seen that they could have) the decision to act might have been easier to make.

All of this is not to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty is really an anti-torture polemic in disguise. It may not glorify CIA torture in the way its detractors claim, but nor does it definitively show that such techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. Since the movie’s release, many people with detailed knowledge of the actual events have even asserted that it overstates the importance of torture, and I see no reason to doubt them. Indeed, there are moments that can’t be explained away, such as an early scene when Maya interrogates a former al-Qaeda financier, using the threat of extradition to Israel—and the certainty of torture there—as leverage. (No, she doesn’t use violence herself, but come on—the man literally says, “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question; I will answer.”) For me, the scene that best captures the movie’s split mindset comes later on. Dan meets with his boss, who complains about the political fallout in typically hawkish fashion: “Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us,” “We’ve got senators jumping out of our asses,” etc. Dan agrees to take the heat for the program if necessary, but he does it to secure funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for help with cell phone surveillance—in other words, to facilitate the normal, nonviolent intelligence gathering that he now recognizes as the more effective way forward.

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The most that can be said is that Bigelow and Boal are clearly going to great lengths to preserve ambiguity on the issue of torture, and I think that’s because their intellectual goal is more sophisticated than to deliver a definitive ideological verdict. As we’ve mentioned, this is a revenge movie at its core. And revenge stories are all, in their own ways, about trauma and the victim’s response to it. What sets Zero Dark Thirty apart from other revenge movies is a question of scope. The filmmakers are exploring a phenomenon that’s common enough throughout history but still difficult to wrap one’s head around: trauma on a national scale, and a nationalized quest for vengeance. Film critic Andrew O’Hehir perfectly encapsulates the central issue that I think the movie is grappling with:

We have taken Dick Cheney’s famous taxi ride to the dark side, in search of justice or vengeance or whatever payback term you like. How has that worked out for us? What are the consequences of embracing not just the enemy’s tactics but the enemy’s essentially nihilistic worldview, in which the standards of universal morality that supposedly formed the basis of the Western world’s liberal revolutions simply do not matter?

Bigelow and Boal did not invent this problem out of nothing, people, and it’s not limited to the 9/11 era or the United States of America. Every single powerful nation throughout history, whether Western and supposedly enlightened or not, has used torture and brutality and state terror as instruments of policy, pretty much whenever it convinced itself it needed to. What has changed since, say, the end of the 18th century is that the great powers are now compelled to pay lip service to higher ideals and pretend that they never do such things, or to explain them away as aberrations perpetrated by rogue elements. When all else fails, there’s always the appeal to patriotism, still the last refuge of scoundrels, as it was to Samuel Johnson. We had to break the rules to “protect the homeland,” as characters repeatedly say in Zero Dark Thirty, which was approximately the rhetoric used to justify British torture in Northern Ireland, French torture in Algeria, American torture in Latin America and the Phillippines, and on and on.[iv]

The message I take from Bigelow and Boal is this: torture was a significant, ugly part of our reaction to the trauma of 9/11, so whether it played an essential role the manhunt or not, it has to be included in any serious examination of what that trauma has done to us. Bigelow herself said as much: “Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes. But it was.”[v] You don’t get to tell the story of our response to 9/11 and pretend this wasn’t part of it.

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Bigelow and Boal really do something quite radical here: they take the most inherently cinematic story of the War on Terror, the one that would be easiest to spin into a simplistic tale of good vs. evil, and make it into one of the least triumphalist blockbusters Hollywood has ever released. For them, a movie about the War on Terror, even one depicting a clear American victory, should not leave us feeling triumphant or comfortable. With its docudrama cinematography, brisk pacing, and realistically unadorned production design, Zero Dark Thirty unfolds so naturally that it can seem like this story couldn’t have been filmed any other way. But at every turn, Bigelow makes conscious choices that inject a sense of discomfort into the proceedings. She skillfully walks a fine tonal tightrope: the movie is gripping but sobering, a story of success that’s almost relentlessly grim.

This is not to say that Bigelow completely neutralizes the story’s inherent appeal; her portrayal this rarefied world and the covert struggle taking place within it is appropriately engrossing and intense. It’s still thrilling when the characters discover a new piece of information, and the tradecraft, technological wizardry, and deductive reasoning they use to acquire and interpret it all is still fascinating and impressive. Yet at the same time, Bigelow creates an atmosphere of pervasive dread and doubt. Her principal characters are not like us; they’re zealous workaholics grasping for answers in a world of uncertainty and deception, with little evident connection to the civilian society that they’re ostensibly serving. The score is haunting and melancholy even at the most triumphant moments. The restless handheld camera keeps us on edge, moving skittishly through environments that bear little resemblance to our own: hectic Middle Eastern cities, blandly threatening military bases, and soulless office spaces. Bigelow expertly amplifies the sense of menace by focusing on odd, minute details: a rustling canopy, a single van wheel beginning to creep forward, the hem of a burkha shifting to reveal the black boots of an agent in disguise.

Nowhere is this duality more apparent than in the movie’s final half-hour, which meticulously reconstructs the Navy SEALs’ famous assault on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Bigelow’s gifts as an action director are on full display in this remarkable sequence. She stages the raid almost in real time and largely without musical cues, forgoing typical action-movie flourishes in favor of unmitigated realism—she knows this incident needs no cinematic enhancement to make it riveting. She has a fantastic instinct for conveying space and motion, expertly cutting between close-ups and wider angles so that even as we witness a complex event with many moving parts, it’s always clear what’s going on. This is especially impressive when you consider that it’s shot almost entirely with handheld cameras and switches frequently between two distinct color schemes: the green glow of night vision goggles and the murky grays and blues of a moonless night. This nervous cinematography does much to create a sense of potential danger around every corner and behind every door; the scene is a masterwork of sustained tension despite the fact that most viewers already know how it’s going to end.

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Most remarkable of all, however, is that even when squarely focused on physical reality and moment-to-moment action, Bigelow engages meaningfully with the larger themes. If there’s any part of the story that could be presented without much ambiguity, this is it: a dramatic, successful military action that the vast majority of Americans approve of, and are intensely curious about. There are certainly moments when the sequence functions in the expected way: as an expression of our collective fantasy of revenge against the mastermind of 9/11. Yet Bigelow never allows it to stay in that vein for long, using the facts of the mission and her own directorial discretion to create frequent counterpoints, yanking us out of the fantasy and complicating our sense of vicarious satisfaction.

So during the SEALs’ initial journey to the compound, Bigelow gives us what we want: stunning images of the stealth helicopters flying hair-raisingly low to avoid detection, skillfully intercut with the nervous SEALs inside and the operators back at the base to create a rhythmic, visceral sense of breakneck flight and mounting anticipation. But in doing so, she also draws our attention to the setting, painting a brief but vivid picture of the mountains between Afghnistan and Pakistan—a rugged, desolate landscape still largely untouched by human civilization. She highlights the fact that the SEALs are flying through one of the most historically significant mountain ranges in the world: the Spin Ghar range, and the larger Hindu Kush that it connects to, have formed a natural barrier and gateway between disparate civilizations since ancient times. Bird’s-eye views of the helicopters, tiny and indistinct against the mountains, invite us to consider this small skirmish as part of a much longer history of confrontation between East and West. Technology has changed the battlefield and the geopolitics are different, but there’s nothing new or original about our War on Terror; it’s just the latest iteration of a conflict that has existed in myriad forms for thousands of years.

The counterpoints are even more pronounced as the SEALs make their way through the compound. Bigelow places us right there on the ground alongside them, encouraging us to identify with them on a gut level—their panic during a chaotic helicopter crash; their nerves as they approach a doorway, unsure of what’s on the other side; and the adrenaline-fueled surge of action when an enemy emerges from the gloom. She gives us thrilling depictions of their bravery and skill, their cohesiveness as a unit and their composure under extreme stress, but she doesn’t shy away from the devastating results of their work, either. Repeatedly, tension builds to an instant of deadly confrontation, and the SEALs prevail, but it’s immediately followed by the consequences: sobbing children, screaming women, and the peculiar, sickening sound of silenced rifles pumping extra bullets into the body. Fittingly enough, we see it most clearly when the squad reaches the top floor of the house. A SEAL lurks in the stairwell and, as we’ve seen others do, calls out the name of the man he believes is hiding there: “Osama!” In our nationalized fantasy of payback for 9/11, this is where everyone most wants to be, and Bigelow knows it. She shoots directly over his shoulder and down his rifle as he scans the doorways, as close to his point of view as we can get. A few of the SEALs have become readily identifiable by now, but this guy isn’t one of them, and with dim glints of light reflecting off the four separate lenses of his night vision goggles, he seems almost more cyborg than human—an anonymous, avenging avatar onto which any American can project themselves. But what happens next isn’t exactly rousing: just a creaking door, a muffled gunshot, a body slumping to the floor, and the family’s anguished cries. All we see of the world’s worst terrorist is a flash of furtive motion in a doorway and a lifeless body absorbing extra bullets. When the moment of vengeance comes, it’s not an epic showdown with evil incarnate, just a man being skillfully murdered in his bedroom. We don’t see the celebrations in the streets back home, and there are no cheers from the operators back at the base. Even the SEALs are pretty subdued, at least in the immediate aftermath; when they do celebrate later on, it mostly comes across as the ‘holy shit we made it!’ kind of triumph.

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In another significant move, Bigelow doesn’t present bin Laden’s death as the climax of the sequence. There is faint background music as the SEALs hastily exit the compound, but the true end of the raid—the moment of transition from hyperrealism back into standard cinematic storytelling, with its necessary distortions of space and time—is clearly signaled when the score suddenly returns to dominate the soundtrack. And that doesn’t happen when bin Laden is killed, or when the last SEALs leave the compound. Instead, the score returns when they blow up the downed helicopter—a controlled demolition to protect military secrets. The music that rises up is melancholy, almost spooky, and after such a protracted fast-paced sequence, Bigelow lingers for a notably long time on shots of the burning wreck, mining this actual event for symbolic import and driving home a crucial point: we may have prevailed, but we haven’t come out unscathed. We’ve gotten the vengeance we were after, but we’ve lost something, too.

That message is everywhere in Zero Dark Thirty—never explicitly stated, but subtly telegraphed in character interactions, implied in framing choices and musical cues, and vividly embodied in the main character, Maya. The movie’s detractors often point to her lack of scruples about the use of torture and her occasional slides into jingoism as evidence of the movie’s bad faith. But depiction is not the same as endorsement, and a protagonist (even one brilliantly portrayed by a talented actress) is not the same as a heroine. In this story, we are definitively on one side and against the other, but no one is pure enough to be considered a straightforward hero, least of all Maya. Bigelow and Chastain invite us to admire her intelligence and resolve, and to sympathize with her uphill struggle as the only woman in an organization run by men. But she’s relatable only insofar as she’s seeking the revenge that we crave; the movie emphatically does not present her as someone we should aspire to be. Even in the all-consuming profession of espionage, she’s singularly alone, with no romantic life and, as one colleague sympathetically observes, no real friends at all. She presumably has some family, but as portrayed in the movie, she never even thinks about them. The one time we see her socializing, she talks about work, and the scene ends with a harrowing explosion. She has no life outside of her job—even eating and sleeping are annoying chores that get in her way.

We still root for her as she tries to convince her wary superiors to act, but that’s largely because we already know she’s right. Imagine yourself as one of her colleagues, trying to work with her without the benefit of hindsight, and she starts to look different: intractable and unpleasant, if not downright ornery, and obsessively attached to a pet theory that’s far from ironclad. We share her frustration when Dan questions the intelligence; he seems to be cynically trying save his own skin by making his views conform to political changes. But if you think about it, his doubt makes perfect sense: we’ve seen two separate occasions where he tortured detainees and got nothing out of it—there were presumably many more. The same is true when Maya argues with her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), demanding more resources to track bin Laden’s courier. She has more passion and better rhetoric, but he has the better argument. Without the knowledge that she’s right, his assessment that she’s “chasing a ghost while the whole fucking network goes all around [her]” sounds pretty spot-on.

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This is a character often lionized in the movies: the hyper-competent warrior/civil servant who lives only for their work. But Bigelow is clear-eyed about how easily such deep commitment can drift over into fanaticism. In another pitch for more resources, Maya implores a colleague: “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I can finish the job.” Unless you’re the sort of person who views our adventures in the Middle East as a righteous resuscitation of the Crusades,[vi] that line makes you uncomfortable, and it’s meant to, because our protagonist is starting to sound disconcertingly similar to the people she’s fighting. Apart from showing a dark side to Maya’s zeal, this crucial line suggests that the War on Terror, and the hunt for bin Laden in particular, contains more of an element of ‘holy war’ than we’d perhaps like to admit. Most of us would balk at the idea of a grand struggle between Christianity and Islam, but religions aren’t the only things that a society can hold sacred. For us, it’s more often about principles: democracy, personal liberty, happiness through consumerism and mass wealth. If there’s anything that unites the vast majority of Americans—especially when the movie was released, before the current shitstorm—it’s a deep-seated belief that we know the right way to live, and one of the driving forces behind the War on Terror is an urge (admitted or not) to spread that gospel to supposedly less enlightened areas of the world. Zero Dark Thirty suggests that in the final analysis, our endeavor is not so different from our enemy’s, and ultimately just as futile.

The movie’s final shots definitively quash any lingering sense of triumph, with Maya sitting alone in a cavernous military transport plane, finally letting her roiling emotions bubble to the surface. She’s an embodiment of America in its quest for revenge: deeply committed, but also obsessive to the point of misery and ill health, moral compass blown to bits, alone and directionless once it’s over. Not for nothing is the movie’s final line, “So, where do you want to go?” We fought brutal wars, adopted our enemy’s cruelty and disregard for innocent life, spent thousands of man hours and literally unimaginable sums of money, killed god knows how many people and sacrificed many of our own—all to kill one man who, by the time we get him, hasn’t been a serious threat to the country for years. Zero Dark Thirty wrestles with a crucial question: Was it worth it? On the level of instinctive patriotism, of course it was. He was the mastermind of 9/11; we’d do anything to get that bastard! Fine, the movie says, here’s what that looks like, up close and in human terms. Do you still think it was worth it? We got our revenge, but are we really better off? I think you’d have to ignore an awful lot of this movie to claim that Bigelow and Boal’s answer is yes. During the SEALs’ frantic evacuation of the house, the camera lingers on two significant images. We see a pool of blood on the floor of bin Laden’s bedroom, and a room full of computers and filing cabinets, only partially ransacked for valuable intelligence—the pitiable side of our revenge, and its ultimately negligible impact on the broader conflict.

Politics have changed, but Zero Dark Thirty is just as thought-provoking today as it was when it came out. It’s not always easy to watch, but it’s an achievement that deserves to be remembered: an entertaining and immersive thriller that also manages to explore difficult issues with uncommon depth. It’s a masterful piece of cinematic craft, and it will eventually be a valuable historical document, partly for its nuanced depiction of what happened, and partly for the way it captures the mindset of a nation lashing out in response to trauma. It shows us who we are, what we did and what it did to us—raw, unfiltered by ideology, without the comfort of a simple moral judgment.

No wonder it pissed so many people off.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] Bigelow and Boal don’t delve into the thorny history behind that one—after all, there’s only so much one movie can do—but anyone with a passing knowledge of the Middle East knows that 9/11 didn’t come out of nowhere, either.

[ii] Glenn Greenwald, an astute and talented investigative journalist, does so very articulately here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/zero-dark-thirty-cia-propaganda

[iii] Manohla Dargis makes this point well, in this excellent review: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/movies/jessica-chastain-in-zero-dark-thirty.html

[iv] Read the rest of this exceptionally thoughtful and incisive review here: https://www.salon.com/2012/12/14/pick_of_the_week_kathryn_bigelows_mesmerizing_post_911_nightmare/

[v] https://www.thewrap.com/zero-dark-thirty-steps-line-fire-answers-critics-68781/

[vi] And if you are, then pretty much everything about this movie probably looks very different from the way I’ve discussed it.