Through This Lens: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

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Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Director of Photography Greig Fraser
USA, 2012

The first 30 seconds of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) take place in darkness, with only brief time stamp and audio of some of the people who suffered on that day in September 2001. It’s a device meant to frame the perspective of the film, forcing the audience to recall memories – if they’re old enough to remember – of where they were and, more importantly, how they felt. However, these memories have been tempered by time’. Though the characters of the film exist and operate in the immediate aftermath, the audience is looking back over ten years – more than enough time for the costs of war to weather some of the most virulent perspectives into something more resembling regret or ambivalence. It’s important for Bigelow to take this approach – though it feels somewhat exploitative – because it puts the audience, hopefully, in a position to be critical of the next two and a half hours of the film.

Bigelow immediately challenges the audience’s position in the next three shots, the first of which is the shaft of light that shines through a hole in the ceiling, which can be interpreted in several ways. It could be a beacon to pull the audience out of the darkness of the previous moment, or a metaphor for the possibility of hope, or lack thereof, depending on your disposition. Perhaps the film itself is the ray of light, illuminating a dark part in world history and in ourselves. Of course, we can’t look at the film as a historical document – so much was changed for cinematic purposes and the story itself shaped by the hands of the CIA – and it’s precisely for this reason that Zero Dark Thirty should be analyzed visually as opposed to pure narrative, which – on the surface – could read like dated neo-con propaganda. The second shot is a shaky, handheld view of hooded figures entering the room and the third is the most important, because it reveals that the handheld shot was from the perspective of the captured terrorist who will be tortured throughout the proceeding scene. This key moment, in which Bigelow moves the audience from their own personal view-point to that of what would be considered “the enemy’s”, illustrates that she’s not content to give an audience a feel-good film in which the “good guys” get the “bad guys.” This is exemplified only moments later when Jason Clarke’s torture specialist Dan looks down on Ammar after waterboarding him and declares “This is what defeat looks like.” From Dan’s perspective, defeat looks like Ammar, from our perspective – the one supplied by Kathryn Bigelow, who keeps the camera on Jason Clarke’s face – it is Dan.

It is in this sequence we’re also introduced to Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya. She’s not, as is the common practice for cinematic heroes, shot from below and centered in the frame in order to seem larger than life. Instead Bigelow accentuates her size, placing her to the sides of the frame and showing her as so much smaller than the men around her This particular tactic, emphasizing the diferences in size between sexes, is one that Jonathan Demme used effectively in Silence of the Lambs, a film that clearly influenced this one. Maya is a specter in the background during these early moments, often shown just over Dan’s shoulder as he interrogates Ammar. When the waterboarding takes place, Bigelow chooses a shot in which the action is out of focus in the foreground, Dan and Ammar’s limbs frame Maya in the background. It is clear that Maya is both witness and provocateur, two roles she will alternate between throughout the film. Bigelow also takes advantage of Chastain’s pale skin, projecting different shades of light to convey her mood or mental well being. During the scene where Maya is texting Jennifer Ehle’s character Jessica, Chastain is backlit by a white light and warm objects that communicate hope and energy but her face is still lit by the cool blue light of the computer screen. This subtle visual tension parallels the uncertainty and danger of Jessica’s situation as she tries to reel in her big catch, a potential mole in the Al-Qaeda organization. After Maya learns that Jessica’s meeting ends in tragedy, Bigelow and Director of Photography Greig Fraser surround Maya with dark blue objects, the bright lights that once filled the room dim as she learns of even more bad news regarding her own big lead. When she is asked by a co-worker what she plans to do now, there is no light coming through the window, only the deep blackness of night. For her response, the top half of Maya’s face is an icy shade of blue, which emphasizes the seriousness of her gaze, while her mouth is lit with a warm, fiery light as she says “I’m going to smoke everyone involved with this op. And then I’m going to kill Bin Laden.” This is a great example of how lighting can enhance an actor’s performance; Chastain has to merely say the line, while the rest of the visual composition does the work of communicating to the audience her emotional instability.

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Violence in Zero Dark Thirty is generally handled in sudden bursts that come after moments of calm, a reflection of the unexpected nature of violence. Bigelow treats the terrorist bombing in London by showing establishing shots of double-decker buses and of British streets. There are several cuts in this sequence, some of which were of passengers inside the bus, but just before the bus explodes, Bigelow pulls us out and sets the camera down the road so that the audience is distanced from the violence. The aftermath of the explosion is observed through television screens reporting what has happened, separating the audience even more from the immediacy of the attack. The torture scenes are handled with the same kind of pace, and even though the circumstances dictate that there will be violence, they again come in rhythmic bursts. For example, when Maya is leading an interrogation the conversation is soft and terse and she merely nods or softly touches the guard on the back to incite him to attack her prisoner. Dan plays on this as well, schizophrenically alternating between a pal who’s “just fuckin’ with ya” to the guy who’s slamming you to the ground and torturing you. For the most part Bigelow cuts between images of torture or violence and the faces of those watching. The spectator is forced to engage in the violent act emotionally by seeing it, but is then given the distance needed to intellectually evaluate their feelings towards the act and the motivations that incited it. This technique is expanded on during SEAL Team Six’s infiltration of Bin Laden’s compound. Bigelow takes a cue from Call of Duty – and again from Silence of the Lambs – by putting the audience behind some night-vision goggles for a first person perspective of the operation. For some this may amount to wish fulfillment, where the spectator can take part in the assassination of the world’s most wanted man. However, Bigelow manages to challenge any satisfaction one can derive from the sequence with her choice of which shots depict the violence. When Chris Pratt’s character kills a male assailant the camera stays in the third person, but when Pratt shoots the man’s wife draped over her husband’s body it is through his eyes. Bigelow lingers on the stillness of the dead as bodies are hit with more bullets; their deaths are never romanticized. Bin Laden’s death is especially unsatisfactory, coming as a surprise to both us and the man who shot him. As with the London bombing aftermath, Bigelow distances us from Bin Laden’s corpse by showing his lifeless body through a cell phone screen, appealing to the intellect rather than the gut. In Zero Dark Thirty violence is hardly sanitized or fetishized, but rather shown as a visceral act that the audience should contemplate in regards to both motivation and consequence as opposed to accepting as a natural order.

The final moment of the film is an important coda to Bigelow’s visual essay on what it means to devote one’s life to vengeance. Maya boards a plane and is asked where she’d like to go, a simple but open-ended question implying limitless possibilities. Bigelow focuses the camera directly on Maya’s face, with a pattern of blood red cargo netting behind her, as she realizes both what she has accomplished and that she has no answer to question of “Now what?” This is the final question Zero Dark Thirty poses to the audience – “What do you do now?” For Maya, she’s still in that moment just after Bin Laden’s death, but as was the case with the opening moments recalling 9/11, the audience is separated from the events by time – but even with this benefit of distance the answer to this question is no more immediately clear to us than it is to her.

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