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Oscars 2013: What You Will Not See in Zero Dark Thirty -- Debunking the Myth That Kathryn Bigelow Endorses Torture

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The first time I saw Zero Dark Thirty was on December 3, 2012. It was a Monday night, and I was at a screening for New York-based film critics. No one I knew had seen Zero Dark Thirty yet, but everyone I knew was very eager to see it. After all, this was the long-awaited follow-up to Kathryn Bigelow's historic film The Hurt Locker (historic not only because of its subject matter -- the War in Iraq -- but because Bigelow had received an Oscar for directing it, making her the first woman ever to receive a Best Director Oscar in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences).

I did an outline of my review the next day, but I didn't rush to complete it because I had lots of time. The publicist told me that Zero Dark Thirty would be released in three theaters in Manhattan and two in Los Angeles (to ensure it would qualify for 2013 Oscar nominations) on December 19, 2012, then more theaters in more metropolitan areas on January 4, 2013, before finally "opening wide" on January 11, 2013 (the day after Oscar nominations would be announced).

In other words, although I saw Zero Dark Thirty for the first time well over a month ago, most of you have had no opportunity to see it until today.

In the weeks following December 3rd, I started hearing some blather on infotainment programs about "Bigelow endorsing torture," but I dismissed it. It was pretty clear to me that none of these pundits had actually seen Zero Dark Thirty yet, so why worry. But the talking heads got increasingly shrill, so I decided to see Zero Dark Thirty a second time, to check my facts, before posting my review.

So I went by myself on December 19, the day that Zero Dark Thirty opened in New York. That was a Wednesday morning, and the theater was practically empty. Nope, Bigelow was definitely not "endorsing torture." I came home, made a few minor corrections, and sent my review off to my editor at WomenArts, and then she posted it:

"Enhanced interrogation," "shock and awe," "the surge;" all of these activities may have played some part, but in each case the cost benefit ratio is definitely open to question. Sure the CIA learned some important things from the prisoners they tortured, but some of the "facts" extracted this way turned out to be so wrong that the hunt was setback for years.




What Zero Dark Thirty shows is that we found UBL primarily through high tech tools, tireless research, deductive logic, and sheer force of will. And assuming the character called "Maya" is, in fact, based on a real person, then it seems there was also an essential element of "feminine intuition" in the mix as well.

Sunday afternoon (December 23rd) I went again, this time with my husband and some friends. The theater was packed, and the popcorn line was enormous. Afterwards we (meaning three men and three women ranging in age from their late twenties to mid-sixties) had a lengthy discussion. Conclusions: We all thought it was a very good and very powerful film. And no, not a single one of us thought Bigelow was "endorsing torture."

So I thought that was the end of it. People would see Zero Dark Thirty and once they had seen it, they would agree that Bigelow was not "endorsing torture," and the Oscar race would begin in earnest. But then, last Saturday morning, I downloaded my new issue of The Economist onto my Kindle and read this:

Maya accepts the methods used by Dan, her CIA mentor (Jason Clarke), on the unfortunate Ammar (Reda Kateb) to get information that could prevent an attack on a hotel in Saudi Arabia. She even fetches the water for the water-boarding. In the mercifully brief scene where Dan uses humiliation and confinement to break his battered captive, Maya's presence is part of the routine. The attack happens anyway because the Saudis fail to act on the CIA's tip.




Maya suggests that they hide this detail from Amaar, one of Osama bin Laden's many relatives, to extract more information from him. He duly names a certain Abu Ahmed as the al-Qaeda leader's personal courier and Maya spends the rest of the film following that name through a labyrinth where a "detainee video" is just another lead, like the background noise on a mobile phone, into the dusty arena where the first stealth helicopter touches down inside the Abbottabad compound at half-past midnight ("zero dark thirty" in popular military parlance).

Et tu, Brute! If one of the most neutral, most respected publications on the current scene got it so wrong, then the faux pro-torture rumors circulating around the film were very real and potentially insurmountable. That's when I decided to go again, this time, with pen in hand.

Now, regular readers of my reviews know I hate to give away plot details that audiences should discover for themselves, so I would prefer that you stop reading now, go see Zero Dark Thirty for yourself, and then come back and read on. But if you want answers to exactly what I think is wrong in the two paragraphs posted above, here they are:

1. Maya accepts the methods used by Dan, her CIA mentor (Jason Clarke), on the unfortunate Ammar (Reda Kateb) to get information that could prevent an attack on a hotel in Saudi Arabia. She even fetches the water for the water-boarding.

This is true. As I say in my review: "When offered the chance, at the very beginning, to stay hidden behind her mask during what is now referred to as 'enhanced interrogation,' or even to watch on a monitor from a further remove, Maya refuses... Bigelow has Maya get her hands dirty, quite literally, from the get go, and that's one reason why she's able to be there at the end."

2. In the mercifully brief scene where Dan uses humiliation and confinement to break his battered captive, Maya's presence is part of the routine.

This is also true.

3. The attack happens anyway because the Saudis fail to act on the CIA's tip.

This is not true. The implication here is that Dan succeeded in his attempt to "break" Ammar, and having broken "his battered captive," Dan was now in possession of critical information. Had the Saudis acted on Dan's critical information (information Dan obtained by torturing Ammar), the attack would not have happened.

Dan does horrible things to Ammar, but his threats are hollow bluster. In fact, the worse it gets, the more resolute Ammar becomes. Dan demands to know the day of the attack. Ammar says: "Sunday." Then: "Monday." Then: "Thursday." As Dan becomes more enraged, Ammar becomes more defiant. Dan has Ammar stuffed into a box that's smaller than a coffin, and still Ammar whispers: "Thursday. Tuesday. Sunday." Ammar gives up absolutely nothing.

4. Maya suggests that they hide this detail from Ammar, one of Osama bin Laden's many relatives, to extract more information from him.

This is half-true. Bigelow is very precise about dates and places in Zero Dark Thirty. The torture scene (described above) is said to take place two years after 9/11, so that would be 2003. The attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, took place on May 29, 2004, so at least six months later.

Maya does suggest to Dan that they hide the details of the Khobar attack from Ammar, pointing out that he has been in isolation all this time, so he will have no way to know otherwise. So Dan and Maya sit down with Ammar at a picnic table filled with food, and Maya questions Ammar while he's eating, telling him thing she has learned in other ways in order to imply that he has already provided some information, even if he can't remember having done so. But she knows, so how can she "extract more information" from Ammar if he has yet to provide any?

5. He duly names a certain Abu Ahmed as the al-Qaeda leader's personal courier and Maya spends the rest of the film following that name...

Again, this is half-true. Maya asks for names and Ammar, shrugging his shoulders, provides some. One of these names is "Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti."

"I've heard of the other guys," says Maya. "Who is he?"

Again, Ammar shrugs: "My uncle said he worked for Bin Laden."

Maya probes, "Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti is a war name. What is his family name?"

Ammar says, "I don't know. I would never have asked him that."

When Maya keeps probing, Ammar says: "I did see him once about a year ago in Kuwait. He had a letter from the Sheik."

Maya: "What did it say?"

Ammar: "Continue with the Jihad. The work will go on for a hundred years."

And that is the last we see of Ammar. Approximately 30 minutes into Zero Dark Thirty, Ammar disappears from the story, never to return.

Now it is true that Maya spends the rest of the film following that name, but what's important in this context is that no one else cares. Ammar clearly doesn't think he has provided any "actionable intelligence" and none of Maya's CIA colleagues think so either. They refer to her search for "Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti" as a "needle in a hay stack," "a unicorn," etc.

At one point, one sympathetic colleague (played by Jennifer Ehle) even says this: "I know Abu Ahmed is your baby, but it's time to cut the umbilical cord." When Maya gives her reasons for continuing to search, she's accused of "confirmation bias." This conversation happens about a half-hour later, but in the context of the film it's a full four years later. We know this because it takes place after the attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad (September 20, 2008).

And years after that, even after Maya has learned that "Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti" is really "Ibrahim Sa'id," and even after she has succeeded tracking him to the compound in Abbottabad, most of her colleagues are still skeptical. When Dan says, in the big meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) that he has 60% confidence, at best, in Maya's hypothesis (his exact words are "a soft 60%"), she jumps down his throat. "It's 100%. OK, I know certainty freaks you guys out, so 95%. But it's 100%!" By this point, it's already 2011, so a full ten years after 9/11, and approximately eight years after Dan tortured Ammar.

So people who think that Zero Dark Thirty shows that the torture of Ammar leads in some direct way to the capture of Bin Laden are simply wrong. That just is not part of the story Bigelow is telling in Zero Dark Thirty. It's either pure fabrication (people seeing what they want to see) or wish fulfillment. So what is Bigelow actually saying about torture in Zero Dark Thirty? Simply this: If only it were that easy!

© Jan Lisa Huttner (1/11/13)--Special for Huffington Post

Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based film critic and award-winning Feminist activist. She blogs at www.TheHotPinkPen.com, and her book "Penny's Picks: 50 Movies by Women Filmmakers" is available from Amazon as a paperback and on Kindle.