Zero Dark Thirty (Distributed by Columbia Pictures, 2012). Written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Reviewed by Gary Gordon
Posted on January 8, 2013 by the Communications Committee
There's a scene in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye during which a gangster wanting information from a private eye takes a coke bottle and smashes it into his own girlfriend’s jaw, shattering her face and sending blood flying. It is one of the most disturbing, violent acts I've seen on film, so much so that when I watch the movie I can’t watch that scene. After getting hit, the girl, a towel on her face, increasingly bloody from the wound, cries and gropes her way out of the car, with no help, and the gangster explains to the private eye that he loves her, so the private eye should imagine what he will do to him if the private eye doesn’t talk.
Nothing this violent, this shocking, this sudden, this emotionally and psychologically engaging happens in Zero Dark Thirty, a tepid, badly directed, shoddy, mediocre procedural that has none of the brain power of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and none of the compelling involvement of any episode of Law and Order SVU. It's too bad Gary Oldman wasn’t asked to star in it with Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay.
Zero Dark Thirty. Spoiler alert: They find and kill Osama bin Laden.
Yes, some torture is depicted in the movie. But given director Kathryn Bigelow's love affair with herky-jerky angles and close-ups and the fashionable quick-cutting and rejection of master shots, the torture might as well be the equivalent of a modern movie dance scene -- you know, where you don’t really see all the dancers dance, you just see movement of arms, legs, knees, feet, hands, etc. Goldfinger's laser aimed at James Bond's crotch was more chilling.
In other words, if what is depicted in this movie represents the CIA’s torture techniques, prisoners have nothing to fear. Even the water-boarding doesn’t merit an extended shot of the prisoner almost drowning as he struggles—if well-directed the scene should make us cringe and gag: instead the camera cuts back and forth between perpetrators and victim and there's no sense this is really bad, it is instead just something on the screen.
As noted by The Nation critic Stuart Klawans, Bigelow and lead actress Jessica Chastain (as CIA agent Maya) seem to want to draw as much absence of emotion as is possible from any human being on film.
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, on the other hand, celebrates the film and proclaims that the absence of discernable emotion emanating (or failing to emanate) from Chastain is a triumph in acting and directing. When Maya, who has participated in water-boarding, hears Obama declare on TV the U.S. will not engage in torture, Dargis writes: "Is she stunned by what she hears? Contemptuous? Relieved? Irritated? Indifferent? Maya’s face reveals nothing and offers as much explanation as her silence. How viewers interpret this look will depend on them because here and throughout this difficult, urgent movie Ms. Bigelow does not fill in the blanks for them."
To paraphrase one of the famous quotes to come out of the Vietnam War: We will tell the story by not telling the story.
Is the film purposely antiseptic? Cold? Distant? Non-committal? Let's put Bigelow in the chair and interrogate her.
As it stands, Zero Dark Thirty requires evaluation not only as a movie but also as a presentation and discussion of torture -- the link between the two being this is a movie based on an actual event: the hunt for bin Laden.
Additionally worthy of discussion is the response to the film and its potential effect on the torture-as-viable debate (thus the reason for quoting Dargis's rave review).
As for the film-maker’s intent, I don’t think even the Shadow knows what’s lurking here.
As an entertaining movie, the movie fails and its failures are numerous.
The movie opens with a black screen and recordings of 911 calls on that fateful morning in September in New York City. From a movie perspective, historic or otherwise, this is a key mistake that lays the groundwork for all the subsequent mistakes that void the essence of this film, or turn the essence of this film into a void.
Apparently Bigelow has decided we know how bad bin Laden is so there is no reason to show footage of 9/11, or footage of bin Laden. Well, okay. But really not okay. Because if you don’t already bring to the movie a visceral sense of this guy as evil incarnate (or at least a really bad man), then what’s it all about? What’s the fuss? Why go after the dude? Why torture people to find him? And why make a movie about it?
True, most of the current adult audience will know the backstory and may have knowledge and emotions at the ready, but films are for the ages; this will not have a long-lasting shelf life as 9/11 recedes into the past, as all events do.
Put another way, imagine Casablanca without the Nazis. Why the need for Letters of Transit? Why the need for life and death decisions?
Dargis from the Times concludes her thoughts about Bigelow’s approach to telling the story: "If Ms. Bigelow leaves some of this to your imagination, it is because, I assume, she knows that the viewers for a movie like this one have been following the news for the past decade. They have read the articles, books and legal arguments about the CIA's use of what was called 'enhanced interrogation' and that others have condemned as torture. Trusting the audience in this fashion is gutsy and all too rare in a movie released by a major studio. But it is an article of faith in Zero Dark Thirty that viewers are capable of filling in the blanks, managing narrative complexity and confronting their complicity."
Wow. (Read that as a dispirited wow, not an enthusiastic wow, as I don’t want to leave that wow up to interpretation.)
Wow. (Read that as a incredulous wow.)
How many have actually read "the articles, books and legal arguments"? Did anyone in the audience really feel drawn into this movie enough to feel complicit in anything on screen? Heck, the audience didn’t even cheer when bin Laden was shot.
Wow. Leaving blanks is "gutsy"?
Imagine for a moment if Spielberg had chosen this approach for Lincoln. The stirring scene in which Lincoln talks to his cabinet, preaches to his cabinet, painstakingly explains to his cabinet the shortcomings of his own Emancipation Proclamation and why the 13th Amendment must—must—be passed would have instead been cut to a few seconds and gone like this:
Lincoln (showing no emotion): You all know the EP didn’t get it done. That’s why we need this. Go. Do it.
Cabinet (in unison, cold and succinct): Okay boss.
At which point Dargis, raving about the movie, would've congratulated Spielberg for trusting that the audience knew all about the intricacies and complexities and nuances of the history, had "read all the books" and didn't need further information or even a hint of the dramatization of the humanity behind the decision-making and the humanity that would be effected by those decisions.
There is a difference between leaving blanks, as Bigelow has done, and making the audience meet the movie half-way without everything easy on a platter: I’ll refer to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy -— John le Carre’s masterful tale of the hunt for a Soviet mole within British Intelligence -- as an example. It's a complex movie that I think did achieve an intelligent balance in storytelling such that the audience had to pay attention and expend some work to make sense of the elaborate puzzle, the methodical investigation, the climax and denouement, and although the character of Smiley (Gary Oldman) is aloof, the emotional involvement is there, too.
So is Zero Dark Thirty in actuality a drone movie where all sense of human presence and essence has been removed? And if so, is this on purpose? And if so, is the purpose to further inure us from any feeling about… anything?
Maybe so. Maybe she has created the anti-movie movie that will serve to distance us even further from a visceral understanding and involvement in our nation's foreign policy. And if that were her intent, she may succeed. But there is the Great Debate she has stirred up…
Bigelow’s choices include the virtual elimination of politics even as the hunt, the so-called War on Terror, two presidential elections, and the surrounding and accompanying debates occurred and swirled throughout the public consciousness and civic action.
So we come to the Great Debate. Does the movie endorse torture? Does it show a clear chain of action that argues or proves that the torture of a detainee or detainees led to the compound at the edge of Abbottabad and the killing of Osama bin Laden?
Disclaimer: Despite Dargis's proclamation, I have not read all the books and articles about Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, CIA "Black sites", the history of torture during armed conflict, the Geneva Convention, CIA rendition, articles of war, sleep deprivation, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. I am certainly aware of the torture (to embrace the term "enhanced interrogation techniques" would be to embrace other terms that flipped or hid meanings, like "protective reaction strike" instead of "attack").
And I am aware of the history (but not all of it) of the CIA.
And I'm aware of what Alfred W. McCoy has written about the ineffectiveness of torture and the myth of the ticking time bomb (here), and I doubt that everyone seeing the movie has read all the articles and books and I don’t know if everyone seeing this movie has even heard of McCoy.
What actually happens in the movie is this: One prisoner who is water-boarded, hung up by his wrists, deprived of adequate food and water, deprived of sleep, made to stand naked in front of a female (we see him from behind so we don’t even see the humiliation on his face that is presumably there), and put in a box, over the course of several scenes, is then treated to a friendly meal, outside, sitting at a table, and during the course of that conversation he gives up a name. Ultimately that name is the nom de guerre of bin Laden’s primary courier. When that man is found he leads them to the compound in Abbottabad where bin Laden is hiding.
Those who argue that the movie without a doubt shows that torture led to bin Laden’s death will simply say "he would not have given them the name if their friendly meal hadn’t been preceded by the torture".
Those who argue that the movie shows that treating a prisoner as a fellow human being is more likely to get the information than torturing him will argue they could’ve saved some time, not tortured the man, and they would’ve gotten what they needed to know.
In another scene, a prisoner who has apparently been previously tortured (we don’t see this but he refers to it) says he fears any additional torture. He is told he will be sent "to Israel" if he doesn’t talk, so he tells them what he knows, which is also an important piece of information.
But what is true?
Senators Diane Feinstein and John McCain have declared Extreme Interrogation Techniques (EITs) were not used to find bin Laden and according to the New York Times have accused acting CIA director Michael Morell of misleading the Zero Dark Thirty movie-makers; Morell, according to the Times, now is saying EITs did lead to such information and Feinstein and McCain have demanded Morell show them the documents he showed Bigelow.
Ty McCormick, in his piece in Foreign Policy, quotes Bigelow telling New York Magazine, "The goal was to be as accurate as we possibly could without, obviously, having been there." Then he calls Bigelow to task for ignoring apparent volumes of evidence that waterboarding and EITs don't work, and quotes former FBI Agent Ali Soufan, author of The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, saying "The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture. Of all the people that are talking about this, I was the only one that was in the room. Enhanced interrogation techniques did not work."
Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad, praises the film as a film but writes: "The compelling story told in the film captures a lot that is true about the search for al Qaeda's leader but also distorts the story in ways that could give its likely audience of millions of Americans the misleading picture that coercive interrogation techniques used by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees -- such as waterboarding, physical abuse and sleep deprivation -- were essential to finding bin Laden" (emphasis added).
Bergen notes in a piece he wrote on this for CNN that he voiced criticisms of a preliminary version of the film to the film-makers who, he says, made some changes to "tone it down", but by all indications did not address this critical issue.
He writes further in the piece that the prisoner represented in the film is most likely Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was "interrogated for 48 days at Guantanamo more or less continuously, kept awake for much of that time by loud music being blasted when he was falling asleep, doused with water and subjected to cold temperatures, kept naked and forced to perform tricks as if he were a dog. However, he wasn't waterboarded or beaten."
Apparently Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal chose to include the beatings and waterboarding and the rest because torture did occur even though it reportedly did not lead to finding bin Laden. Torture is more scenic. Controversy helps sales.
Hooray for Hollywood.
Gary Gordon is a novelist and screenwriter and serves on the Los Angeles County Central Committee and State Central Commmittee of the Peace and Freedom Party.