Zero Dark Thirty and the Importance of Tone-Setting

Any movie that has to do with Osama Bin Laden will undoubtedly make heavy reference to the horrific events that unfolded on 9/11. The name exudes sadness, loathing, and disgust that are intrinsically tied to the deaths of nearly 3000 civilians, and hundreds of American lives lost overseas. It’s also easy for a movie to make this reference in super simple means: show clips of the burning towers, play dramatic music, maybe add some military snare drums, show footage of people jumping to their deaths and crying profusely. Zero Dark Thirty does none of this.

I was reminded while re-watching the film just how perfectly it integrates the context of 9/11 into its own specific narrative. The movie opens with a black screen. For well over a minute, we are given a deluge of mixed audio from the event: 911 calls, people crying, dispatchers telling World Trade Center workers that everything is going to be ok, screaming, shouting. It is a sequence of absolute chaos and madness, but not once do we see a single image of the Twin Towers. The scene gives me chills every time I’ve seen it.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal knew exactly what they were doing here, beyond breaking the mold of 9/11 montages. They know that the entire world has prominent visual memories of that day seared into their brains. They do not need imagery to convey the horrors of the event. They choose instead to focus on the heavy emotional impact and gravity of the overwhelming amount of lost lives and exuded fears. Not a minute into the film, and the audience is successfully reminded of how truly angering and despairing that day was, without interfering with their own visual perceptions.

This is absolutely critical because the overarching context of Zero Dark Thirty is about torture. The first third or so shows actual acts of waterboarding and dehumanization, difficult to watch to say the least. The latter two thirds make abundantly clear, however, that the Intelligence Officers and Operators who hunted for Bin Laden were frustrated by the lack of resources they had available to exploit the enemy to gain info about the terrorist’s whereabouts. In their minds, and according to the film’s narrative, torture was truly a critical component of starting the trail to the elusive leader of Al Qaeda.

We live in a post-torture world of counter-terrorism overseas. People are sick and tired of the continuing fighting, and the introduction of (heavily debated) war crimes at black sites and prisons like Abu Ghraib. Zero Dark Thirty, consequently, needed to get the audience accustomed to seeing why torture may not have been the worst thing ever, in order for us to sympathize with our protagonist, Maya. The best way it could’ve done this is make the audience angry again: bring them back to the days following the event, when Al Qaeda joyfully claimed responsibility for the cataclysmic destruction. We needed to hear the cries of those who lost their lives in order to bring us back to that feeling of loss, beyond simply watching those concrete and steel towers fall. It’s a disturbing narrative tactic for sure, but an expert means by which filmmakers can hone in an audience’s emotions in order to bring sympathy to morally ambiguous characters.

Torture still remains a hotly contested debate in the world of terrorism. When making a wide-release film like Zero Dark Thirty, it’s ultimately critical to make such a topic at least moderately accepted in order to let the audience root for the hero. I think the movie has done an excellent job in this regard. It doesn’t fail to communicate how brutal and inhumane torture is, but, at the very least, helps a wider audience come to terms with it.