Zero Dark Thirty: Another Perspective

Written by  //  February 26, 2013  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  1 Comment

A film that begins with an insurgent being tortured into revealing crucial intelligence? Surely they follow that with one of the characters making a speech about the wrongness of torture? What, there isn’t so much as a single line about the futility of torture but instead they portray the torturers sympathetically, as non-sadistic people who take no visible pleasure in their task? There must have been a scene where the victim of torture is revealed to be utterly innocent at the very least, right? Nope, he’s responsible for a terrorist attack. Then there can be no other conclusion except that Zero Dark Thirty is a pro-torture film! 

 But see, I’m not referring to ZDT: Those are scenes from Gillo Pontecorvo’s award winning film, The Battle of Algiers (1965) which is today acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made and has the distinction of being one of the few films that was compulsory viewing for guerrilla movements and counter-revolutionary forces alike. The film gives the clear impression that Algiers dissidents were crushed thanks to information received through torture. Even though later reports from the Algerian revolution reveal that torture was not as instrumental in obtaining intelligence, it would be quite a stretch of imagination to call the film “pro-torture”.

 So why the double standards for Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden? The Academy Awards were handed out yesterday and ZDT has been properly screwed over in every category because of the controversy over its depiction of torture and deviance from fact. Ironically, all accolades went to the utterly undeserving Argo which, at best, had a rather tenuous grip over the meaning of ‘fact’. Before I watched ZDT, I was horrified that anybody would release a film that was pro-torture propaganda. Now that I have watched the film, I realize that Bigelow’s brilliant film has been completely misunderstood; Zero Dark Thirty is among the best war/political films I’ve seen in recent times and is very reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers in the way it dispassionately, almost clinically, dissects the events surrounding bin Laden’s death.

 One of the first scenes from ZDT, when the detainee who was defiant through the torture sessions breaks down when he is handed a bottle of orange juice, hating himself for feeling gratitude towards his captors reminded me of a very similar scene in the beginning of The Battle of Algiers where the revolutionary is lying there, broken after the torture, and weeps when he is handed a French uniform. While it is difficult to watch a man being beaten into submission, it is downright heartrending to watch a man’s dignity being stripped. In case you missed it, that was the film-makers humanizing the dreaded Al-Qaeda even as the torturers were de-humanizing them: something that Hollywood has been incapable of doing thus far.

 Oddly enough, if you see what the critics are saying, they aren’t saying tortu– oops I mean enhanced interrogation techniques are not used by the CIA or that black sites don’t exist; they’re saying that the CIA didn’t use torture to catch bin Laden. And the CIA doesn’t use crude methods like dog collars! Those are the mainstays of low level military police, the CIA only use water-boarding and there are doctors monitoring the detainees’ health! And torture doesn’t even work, you guys so that’s why ZDT is a dishonest movie. But for a film-maker, saying all of that in a movie is the easy, Oscar-baiting way out. The difficult question is:  what if it did work? What if torture did lead to the capture of bin Laden? Films are not about faithful adherence to events (and some are certainly more than just entertainment) but are about posing questions that we may not want to hear the answer to. To me, ZDT was not endorsing the view that torture did lead to the capture of bin Laden. To me, the film was asking us if robbing countless men and women of their humanity and dignity was worth the price of shooting an (allegedly) unarmed man in the head; a man that hadn’t been seen in years; a man that the US Government itself had lost interest in. All that the SEALs left behind were scared, wailing children and a pathetic blood stain on the floor, while patting each other on the back for getting Public Enemy No. 1. But the genius of ZDT is that  it never passed any judgment either way: there were no maudlin speeches about how sad torture is or any Col Nathan R Jessup army types telling us that reality is harsh and war needs torture. The film only asks us if we can afford the bill at the end of the meal.

If you are going to watch a film by a major Hollywood studio to look for the truthful version of a historical event, you’re doing it wrong.

But more than anything, ZDT was a very personal film a woman’s dogged pursuit of bin Laden. Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) had a hunch that she simply wouldn’t let go of for 12 years– even though she’s been targeted by terrorist groups and everybody from her boss to the dog walker have asked her to simply let it go. And Maya keeps us and her colleagues at arm’s length– she texts during meals, she wont suck up the higher ups, rarely smiles and is a bit of a recluse. But at the end of the film, Maya when the goal she has been working towards for her entire adult life has been achieved, when she has nothing left but tears, we finally share common ground with her. Are there any of us that have not feared the utter emptiness that follows the achievement of one’s life goals?

One Comment on "Zero Dark Thirty: Another Perspective"

  1. Anisha February 26, 2013 at 12:31 pm ·

    I disagree that Bigelow’s silence on the morality of torture is a strategic decision to intellectually challenge her audience. Thing is, I don’t think Bigelow makes particularly deep or intellectual films at all. In both ZDT and HL, she backed away from both the political and the personal, choosing to focus, instead, on the procedural. Both are fast-paced, sharply edited films, packed with professionals doing their thing and spouting clever industry jargon and, hey, they are pretty thrilling to watch. But her characters are little more than stereotypes – cryptic, dogged CIA hack and cryptic, calm, near-invincible Navy Seal. There is no discernible attempt to tell a larger political story either: HL could have been in any damned country in the world and in ZDT, we rarely stray beyond the scope of the CIA (barring the sight of Obama mumbling on a TV screen in the background, which, of course, is duly ignored by all the characters).

    I think she’s very much one with the philosophy and certainly the aesthetic of ’24’. One wouldn’t, presumably, argue that ’24’ is a deep treatise on the dilemmas posed by torture. Instead, shows like ’24’ and movies like HL and ZDT by their very abdication of the moral/ethical/political ground act as receptacles for the audience’s existing prejudices. You are appalled by torture and so you react viscerally to the graphic scenes in ZDT. Someone else might consider torture a necessary aspect of securing national security, and would only point to the repeated (and arguably false) assurances that al-Kuwaiti and Osama were identified as a direct result of the detainee program. HL, too, was variously advanced as both pro and anti Iraq war, when, in fact, she abandoned even the pretence of engaging with any such question.

    Of course, if she were, in fact, trying to ask searching questions about the validity of torture then I’m afraid Bigelow’s missed the bus. The debate on whether we can trade off human dignity against national security has been conclusively resolved, at least on the subject of torture. Whatever else might go on illicitly behind closed doors, the US has today openly rejected the policy of torture – just look at the existence of senate hearing committees probing the use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ and the bipartisan criticism of the film as being factually inaccurate. If Bigelow wants to reopen the torture debate then one can only presume its because she’s unsatisfied with its resolution as it stands. Frankly, I don’t think she gives a damn – she’s into making superficial killer thrillers, and little more. I’m sure she’ll have a great drone film once that debate’s been put to rest in a decade or two.

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