“Zero Dark Thirty” — deplorable propaganda

Written by  //  December 27, 2012  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  3 Comments

Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a newly released film on the decade-long pursuit, and ultimate assassination, of Osama bin Laden is factually flawed and morally reprehensible, and amounts to little more than nauseating, jingoistic propaganda. There has been much ado about the beauty of the film’s sequences, and its pulsating approach to storytelling, reportedly making it a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination—views that betray the film’s  ineptitude. But the more pertinent question being: can an attempted work of art, portrayed as representing something close to the truth, be considered meritorious in spite of veering overwhelmingly on the hideous end of a moral compass? I would argue, as Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, and several others have, that it cannot.

“Zero Dark Thirty” begins by telling you that what you are about to see is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” The 9/11 attacks are then expressed through a short audio montage of calls from victims, proceeding quickly to a “black site” in Pakistan, where an Arab male looking woefully maimed is shown being tortured by Dan, a tall, brooding CIA interrogator. Standing next to him, face covered in a black hood, is Maya, a red-haired woman, who will soon take over the mantle of the chase, and will play an active—if seemingly troubled and indirect—role in further torturous acts in an incessant bid to find the al Qaeda leader. We will then be told through a series of perplexing, breathless scenes that the Arab man, Ammar, worked for al Qaeda. Ammar, who refuses to divulge any information, will then be put through another few doses of vicious waterboarding and various forms of sexual embarrassment leaving him viscerally battered, bruised, and humiliated.

Soon Maya and Dan, based on the former’s advice, will take Ammar out for lunch—who on a diet of meatballs and cigarettes, and seemingly under fear of further torture—will reveal crucial information about a courier that would eventually lead the CIA to bin Laden. But not before a few others have been tortured or subjected to “enhanced interrogation,” as the CIA likes to describe its methods. Maya’s obsession—akin without the beguiling complexities to Carrie’s character in the superior (yet fundamentally flawed) TV series Homeland—with finding bin Laden will then be documented through a sequence of scenes that beggars reality. When the CIA first subjected a detainee to torture, as Mayer points out in her piece, the FBI agent at the scene raised strong objections, taking the matter all the way to the top of the Bush administration. But none of this merits mention in Bigelow’s film, which only glorifies the method, showcasing torture as an effective tool crucial to bin Laden’s discovery. Of course, there is no explicit endorsement of torture, but at various junctures there is an allusion towards it—it is categorically shown as a measure that was indispensable to the mission. Suggestions by some, such as Spencer Akerman of Wired magazine, that the movie effectively makes a strong case for the inhumanity of torture by showing the interrogation method in all its ignominy is infinitely off the mark—the only mention of the measure’s barbarity is in a 60 minutes interview of Barack Obama, who is condemning torture, which is playing on a TV screen in the background as Maya and other CIA operatives showcase their disdain, almost as if to say: “What does he know after all.”

The problem: torture did not lead the CIA to bin Laden. This has been established over and over again. As Scott Shane and Charlie Savage reported for The New York Times, “One detainee who apparently was subjected to some tough treatment provided a crucial description of the courier, according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations. But two prisoners who underwent some of the harshest treatment — including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times — repeatedly misled their interrogators about the courier’s identity.” Senators Diane Feinstein—the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating CIA’s interrogation programme—John McCain and Carl Levin wrote this in their letter to the Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment: “The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the [Osama] Bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier’s identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which [Osama] Bin Laden was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.” The CIA’s current acting director, Michael Morrell has similarly expressed his disappointment at the factual inaccuracies propagated by the movie, describing the impression that torture led to bin Laden’s finding as simply “false.”

What the film gives us though is blatant lies hidden behind a veil of artistic license. All of this  is even more distressing when you consider what Bigelow and screenwriter, Mark Boal, who worked with her on the superb “The Hurt Locker.” have said in their various interviews. Bigelow told Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker that what they were “attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film,’’ hinting that their purported intention was to get the facts right, and then portray it cinematically. Boal told New York magazine that the film is a “hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic,” while trying to assuage the criticism by revealing later that “It’s a movie, not a documentary.” Bigelow, however, adds that the film has no agenda, and “it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.” In trying to simultaneously gloat about its accuracy while hiding behind the independence that fiction accords, Boal and Bigelow have tarnished an already repugnant film even further.

Filmmakers no doubt deserve an element of “artistic license,” and all art, as Alan Rozenshtein writes in the Lawfare blog, is not political, but the pursuit of bin Laden is of such immense historic relevance, that it required particular attention to detail. “If drama butted up against truth, Bigelow should have compromised the drama, not the truth,” Rozenshtein rightly says. And in any event, as the opening of the film suggests, and as Bigelow’s and Boal’s statements to the press have alluded, what is being portrayed as the movie’s selling point is its devotion to the truth. On that count, it not only fails miserably, it comes across as sheer propagandist junk.

3 Comments on "“Zero Dark Thirty” — deplorable propaganda"

  1. Sundaresan December 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm ·

    Beautifully written. Exhaustive and well researched…Seemed like reading Arun Shourie and that’s an awesome thing for me.

  2. Lekha January 5, 2013 at 11:47 am ·

    Very interesting read Suhrith. As much as I do subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s view that art is amoral, movies like these do raise perplexing questions. I was about to cite Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will — a much acclaimed film even though the message is so disgusting but then, few (except the openly racist) will look to Riefenstahl’s film for anything except technical brilliance.

    While I havent watched Zero Dark Thirty, it is clear that pop culture does shape policy:


  3. Nick January 7, 2013 at 12:00 am ·

    Having seen the film, it at best expresses an ineptitude on the part of the United States’ intelligence-gathering community (who spend ages using torture to glean inaccurate details from a detainee only to find that the correct information they so desperately wanted was actually just laying forgotten at the bottom of a drawer for five years).

    Showing a CIA agent torture a man makes the CIA agent look like a calculating monster. Showing a team of U.S. soldiers carrying out a raid on a compound filled with women and children and only two armed men makes U.S. soldiers look like cold-hearted murderers.

    All of this was depicted by the filmmakers with a very measured hand and you’ll take away from this movie exactly what you bring to it, yourself. To call it “deplorable propaganda” is an incredible stretch, as it did not for an instant try to dissuade me from being infuriated by the actions of the protagonists.

    It could be faulted for being too neutral and dispassionate about a topic that demands outrage but that doesn’t make it propaganda.

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