When a film attempts to portray a series of historical events, the line between art and reality is inevitably blurred. The problem is already apparent in a film like Django Unchained, where there is room for debate regarding the authenticity of the depictions of slavery. The issue is even more acute in Lincoln, where we cannot help but wonder whether the man himself was much like the character portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. But the problem reaches its apex in Zero Dark Thirty, where considerations of artistic merit and moral implications are all but overwhelmed by concerns about whether the film is a faithful reflection of actual events.
Zero Dark Thirty is not, and does not pretend to be, any kind of documentary. It seeks to comport with actual events wherever possible, but strict fidelity to historical fact is not its overriding objective. All the debate over whether the torture of detainees contributed to the discovery of bin Laden, as the film suggests, is therefore somewhat beside the point. As a work of art, and not a documentary, the issues raised by Zero Dark Thirty are of another kind and dimension altogether.
The story of the hunt for bin Laden could have been told in a thousand different ways. But director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal chose a particular way, with a particular orientation, tone, style, theme, quality of characters and outcome. These artistic choices are what define this film, not its fidelity to the fine points of historical accuracy.
With this distinction in mind, the artistic merit of the film comes more easily into focus. Zero Dark Thirty is a long, sustained and dark dramatic narrative, unleavened by humor, emotional bonds between characters, or ordinary acts of human kindness. Its moral center is represented by the drive of the woman whose dogged diligence is almost single-handedly responsible for finding bin Laden. Her persistence, courage and refusal to tolerate the equivocations of her superiors, generate the dramatic tension and the catharsis that the film depicts.
And yet in the very hour of her success, in the film's final scene, as she sits alone in the cavernous air force plane chartered to carry her home, her face is filled not with triumph or joy, but freely flowing tears. It is as if in the end her victory is somehow hollow. These are not tears of relief, but of a woman whose bitter battles to achieve her goal have somehow robbed her of an element of her own humanity. Now that she has attained her objective, there is an emptiness within that she can no longer avoid.
"Zero dark thirty" is military lingo for thirty minutes after midnight, the hour when the helicopter raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan takes off from its base in Afghanistan. The soldiers who carry out the raid enjoy an easy camaraderie that sustains them before, during and after the operation. The woman who set it all in motion, however, stands apart, alone, unable to participate in the group celebration.
It is hard not to conclude, therefore, that the military action -- no matter how noble in conception, no matter how morally justified -- is ultimately an exercise in futility. The target is dead, the mission is accomplished, but at what cost? This is the question we are left with in the end, and that is the reason the film succeeds not as a documentary, but as a work of art.