Zero Dark Thirty fell far short of once-expected Oscar glory last night. The film's Academy Awards prospects dimmed after drawing sharp rebukes from policy experts for overplaying the role of CIA torture in the hunt and kill of Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, Kathryn Bigelow's stylish film has garnered its share of respect and accolades among audiences and film critics.
Bigelow has succeeded in making a Rorschach test of a film that can even please both Dick Cheney and Michael Moore. Upon first viewing, I was deeply dismayed by how torture dominated the story frame and arc of the film. Watching it a second time, that reaction remained, yet the film's merits were more visible and Bigelow's intentions more ambiguous.
A compelling but seriously flawed Hollywood film that makes viewers struggle with its point of view on real world issues is worthy of being seen, discussed and challenged. Here's my take on the debatable elements and shortcomings of the storytelling and politics of Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT).
The Story Arc: Defining A Decade?
ZDT opens in black screen on 9/11, with the real-life audio screams of its victims awaiting their final moments of terror. The film immediately cuts to the torture chamber of a CIA black site, and fills its first 45 minutes with the harsh abuse of Middle East suspects.
The choice to move from the World Trade Center straight to CIA torture dens is questionable. What happened to the endless war in Afghanistan, the very first battlefield in the hunt for Bin Laden? The Afghan war barely merits a mention in the film (and the Iraq War is missing in action).
Before the May 2011 killing of bin Laden, Bigelow and the screenwriter Mark Boal were apparently developing a film on the U.S. military's failed 2001 pursuit of Al Queda leaders in Tora Bora. That was probably a more appropriate and historically safe time and place to open the film.
ZDT is told in three acts: the CIA Torture of Detainees; Expanded Intelligence Gathering; and the Night Raid to kill Bin Laden. Amid the subterranean search, we witness a string of terror attacks in Pakistan and London -- and escalating fears of "protecting the homeland."
Some critics have called ZDT "a film to define a decade." That might be apt if one sees the decade as starting with the horrendous crime of 9/11 and ending with successful manhunt of its mastermind. However, these years are likely to be better remembered by how the Bush/Cheney gang over-reacted to 9/11 and led the country astray into two unending costly wars and the corruption of its moral and legal standing in the world, while financial predators at home sunk the real security of millions of Americans. Oh, and Osama was killed in the end.
The Complicit Protagonist
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is the film's hero, a so-called composite figure but also supposedly based on a real intelligence operative who tracked bin Laden's courier. Maya is the screen viewer's doorway into the bin Laden search odyssey.
In her opening scene, we sympathize with Maya as she squirms and winces at the brutal torture being applied by her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) upon Ammar (Reda Kateb), a terror suspect detainee. However, when Dan later offers her to stay out of the room since "there's no shame if you want to watch from the monitor," Maya refuses, and proudly removes her head scarf that conceals her identity.
Maya then proceeds to be a literal handmaiden of torture, as she pours water in a bucket to help Dan waterboard Ammar.
One might argue that Bigelow is making her American audience squirm in their own complicity for the torture being conducted in their name. Our citizenry was never asked by its leaders or the media to approve the use of torture as a policy tool -- or rose up in sufficient numbers to stop it sooner. Bigelow certainly portrays torture in its stark inhumane terms conducted by a character (Dan) who is a cinema hybrid of field torturer and D.C. policymaker.
However, since Maya is portrayed as a strong, smart and ultimately admirable protagonist -- who voices no doubts about the war crime of torture -- the film serves to implicitly approve its practice.
It also doesn't help that Maya is played by the ethereal Jessica Chastain, an appealing actress whose earthy screen persona has been on the side of better angels, such as in The Help and Tree of Life.
Torture as Necessary Evil
Bigelow writes in the LA Times that she is "a life-long pacifist" who supports "all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind." However, she earlier told the New York Times that "the film doesn't have an agenda, and it doesn't judge."
It's hard to watch the opening act of the film and believe that Bigelow expects us to sympathize with or condone the violent behavior of agents meting out harsh interrogation and torture.
However, in the end, ZDT leads the audience to believe that torture works as a legitimate tool of statecraft. While it shows detainees lying under duress, Maya builds her case and discovers key leads to track the courier Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti to bin Laden's hideout in Abbottad, Pakistan through multiple torture-induced statements.
This storyline has been widely debunked, even by the hawkish Senator John McCain, a torture victim in Vietnam, who said this in a 2011 speech on the Senate floor:
We did not learn Abu Ahmed's real name or alias as a result of waterboarding or any 'enhanced interrogation technique' used on a detainee in U.S. custody. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed's real name, his whereabouts, or an accurate description of his role in Al Qaeda.
The Missing Moral Voice
What a filmmaker decides to leave out can be as revealing as what is shown. If Bigelow views torture as "reprehensible," why does she exclude those internal voices of CIA and military dissent that were also part of the bin Laden hunt? As Jane Mayer writes in The New Yorker:
Zero Dark Thirty does not capture the complexity of the debate about America's brutal detention program. It doesn't include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue--again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.
The only dissenting moral argument heard in ZDT is a faint one -- that of newly-elected President Obama, whose interview on 60 Minutes ("America doesn't torture") is background noise that draws no reaction or concern from the Maya and her colleagues at a CIA conference table session.
Even if torture helped the intelligence gathering process to find Bin Laden, should we endorse it as legitimate act of state?
It is quite disturbing to learn that Pew Research Center polling reveals that since 2004 Americans have gradually swung in favor of torture as an acceptable practice. The moral vacuum of the world painted in ZDT -- combined with the Obama administration's embrace of assassination drones -- can only reinforce such dark logic and thinking in the public mind.
Women Policy Warriors
Zero Dark Thirty is driven by female brains and male brawn. Bigelow and screenwriter Boal deserve credit for crafting the role of Maya, a driven young career woman who through force of will and fearless intelligence succeeds in the hero's journey. Few such women exist in film, let alone one set in the policy/intelligence world. Maya's character is also complemented by Jessica, based on real life agent Jennifer Mathews (played by Jennifer Ehle), who dies in a suicide bombing.
Yet... can't Hollywood offer more life-affirming career paths for feminine wisdom and kick-ass girl power than in the soul-hallowing torture, hunt and kill of terrorists? Maya takes on the cowboy swagger of W when she vows: "I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill bin Laden."
CIA Cool & Spin
For all the protest the CIA puts up about the film's depiction of torture by the agency, ZDT often appears as a made-in-Langley production. As Timothy Egan writes in the New York Times: "It's obvious, now, why the C.I.A. was cooperative with the filmmakers: it couldn't have asked for better product placement."
When did the CIA ever look more Skyfall-smooth, cool and efficient? The agency's situation room is chock full of real-time high-tech surveillance screens with agents brimming with all-knowing confidence in their satellite and drone-powered eyes in the sky.
Maya could even be a CIA poster child, saying that she was recruited straight out of high school by the agency. High school, really? What did they see in her at 18? Early in the film, Dan asks Islamabad CIA station chief Joseph Bradley, "Don't you think she is a little too young for the hard stuff (read torture)?" He dismisses the question, noting that "Washington says that she is a killer."
There is reason to believe that the ZDT film team may have been victims themselves of a CIA covert action to rewrite the failed outcome of the agency's torture record. As former FBI special agent Ali Soufan writes: "While filmmakers have the right to say what they want, government officials don't have the right to covertly provide filmmakers with false information to promote their own interests."
Opening the Lens to New Storytelling
Bigelow proved with The Hurt Locker that she is a master filmmaker on the grunt-level life and experience of modern warfare. The last third of Zero Dark Thirty, focused on the Navy Seal team nighttime raid, once again reveals her skill in documentary-style, battlefield storytelling. ZDT may have succeeded if its makers stayed close to the ground, starting in Tora Bora and ending in Abbottad.
However, Bigelow and screenwriter Boal stumbled by trying to craft a larger macro-context and politics to explain the forces behind the battlefield. That context was in the end quite narrow, living in the hermetically-sealed world of spooks, torturers and a distorted slice of the policy world.
The controversy and shortcomings of Zero Dark Thirty has opened a critical conversation and debate. Hopefully it will lead to brave new Hollywood storytelling about these years when America went in search of monsters to destroy, and ended up slaying things once held dear.