Zero Dark Thirty charts the cloudy events surrounding Osama Bin Laden’s death, but its depictions of torture as a means of information retrieval are just as dubious
Before I get into the controversy that surrounds this film I would first like to emphatically set Mark Boal, the screenwriter, straight on one essential addition in the film that was highly nonsensical. The lead character, Maya, corrects her friend and colleague, Jessica, with the mocking confidence of a trained intelligence analyst who has studied Muslims, asserting that “Muslims don’t celebrate with cake.” Mr. Boal, we do.
Speaking of cakes, the essential controversy about Zero Dark Thirty is that director Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal want to have their cake, calling the movie “journalistic” and “true” when it suits them and eat it too by calling it “artistic”. The documentary-style shooting of the actual capture of Osama Bin Laden and the claim at the beginning of the movie that it is “based on first-hand accounts and actual events” renders the call for artistic license problematic. This is especially significant when the chosen inaccuracy is that torture was essential in the eventual capture of Bin Laden. This, of course, isn’t true, as former CIA chief Leon Panetta and other analysts have all confirmed that information obtained from torture wasn’t very useful.
The film’s opening scene begins with the phone call of a 9/11 victim burning up, followed by a torture scene of ‘terrorist’ Ammar. This character is subjected to all manner of inhumane treatment as his torturer promises, “You lie to me and I will hurt you”. Later Ammar is tricked into believing he had already divulged secrets in his state of delirium and then proceeds to confirm what they were looking for. Another clear case is when the second terror suspect states, “I have no wish to be tortured again, (so) ask me a question and I will answer it”. Later, the torturer reassures the sceptical SEALs that the intelligence she obtained regarding Bin Laden’s whereabouts was sound because the source was “detainee reports”, a euphemism for information obtained from torture.
The flatness and cartoonish character of Ammar, the man tortured in the opening scene, is frustrating though expected. We learn that it is ideology that motivates these radicals, but what we don’t learn is what these ideologies are. We never learn why Ammar does what he does. At least in the show Homeland you can understand Abu Nazir’s motives, namely that his home was attacked by drones and he lost his child.
Bigelow, staying faithful to what transpired, effectively ‘depicts’ the perspective of the US Government, which ignores the essentially political gripes Bin Laden had with America. She then proceeds with the idea that hatred of freedom was the motivating factor for those terrorists. If the winners are those who write history, then it seems they commissioned the masterly skills of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal to pen this one.
Zero Dark Thirty wants to present the hunt of Bin Laden as it happened without an agenda. Bigelow doesn’t want to stand on the stool of hindsight and then pontificate insights as to how news should have been reported or what ought to have happened. Her persistent defence is that torture was part of the process and therefore her film depicts the ‘truth’ of that was necessary. That, per se, isn’t the problem. The problem is the centrality she places on the efficacy of torture in the capture of Bin Laden.
Though she insists that the movie is “a neutral story”, it seems neutrality was not even attempted. There could have been complexity in the character, voiced opposition, moral qualms, and alternative narratives that showed some depth or further commentary which would all have remained an accurate portrayal of the events. Almost all accounts have members of the CIA and the FBI questioning the methods of torture or its value.
It may be “just a movie” as Boal says, but the way the film presents itself, its focused and mostly accurate look at the events and its claims of truth, are all bound to affect the public. Steve Coll, a staff writer from the New Yorker, quotes intelligence scholar Amy Zegart who said that in the last several years there has been a change in public opinion about torture. There is a less negative view of it. She attributes it to “spy-themed entertainment”. Think of the absurd and dangerous popularity of the Muslim-bashing, torture-endorsing travesty that was the 24 series. The main idea Zero Dark Thirty seems to present is, even though torture is revolting and horrific, it was necessary in the capture of Bin Laden and the men who have warred with the US.
So was it worth it? The answer is suggested and represented through the protagonist Maya when she confirms the death of Bin Laden. Her emotions are heavily mixed; her tears are an outlet for joy at the killing of this evil man, but also for the grief of losing people close to her. It is also relief that the hard work paid off and an acknowledgement that the episode will remain indelible in her memory. Was it all worth it? For Maya, the hero of the film and the one we are most sympathetic towards, the character who was initially disturbed by torture but then became battle-hardened to reality, it is a resounding ‘Yes’.
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