Zero Dark Thirty is stuck in a proxy fight over torture. One’s view of the movie seems to be a referendum on whether you think the torture portrayed in the film was essential to the information that ultimately led to the raid in Abbottabad. But perhaps I’m naïve to think that a theme of the film is that people are people and violence is violence. (Bear with me, even as you say to yourself, tautology is tautology.)
The opening torture sequence is often lumped in with “24,” but I think it is different from similar scenes in that TV series for three reasons. First, the movie’s protagonist is deeply troubled by the torture, even as she continues her participation in it. Jack Bauer never doubted the necessity of his actions or showed any qualms. Maya (Jessica Chastain) does. Even her mentor, Dan (Jason Clark), seems wounded by his involvement in such acts as the movie progresses. Second, the tortured prisoner is not shown doing any concrete harm prior to the torture. Yes, the immediately prior scene involves 9/11, but the prisoner undergoing “enhanced interrogation” has a somewhat distant link to that trauma—a “money man,” related to a more important planner, not important in his own right. Third, and relatedly, Reda Ketab portrays the tortured prisoner with impressive humanity. Torture in movies sometimes feels like vengeance; here the audience’s sympathies lie with the tortured man. Why are the CIA agents doing this? Why do they continue? And the vindication of the torture is diffuse at best. It is unclear if the information was revealed because of the torture, or just because of the sleep deprivation. Ketab’s character, Ammar, does not reveal his information to avoid more pain or more simulated drowning. His revelation is disconnected physically and temporally from his pain. He is, in essence, tricked into revealing his information, and that information has no real effect on finding bin Laden until years later. At which point, numerous other individuals have separately provided that same information. It seems quite likely that the torture was unnecessary; the information would have come anyway. I can think of no episode of “24” with a similar equifinality with regard to torture.
Which brings me back to this theme of people being people and violence being violence. It seems a message of the movie is that 9/11 led the United States to do considerable harm in its efforts to both retaliate for the harm done and also prevent future harm. One might think the harm was justified, but it doesn’t erase pain inflicted by the United States. The film doesn’t shy away from demonstrating that U.S. efforts are not always “clean.” The movie shows that violence is still violence, and not pretty. While mentally I knew that there were others in the compound when the raid took place, it is different to know this than it is to see their deaths portrayed. There were wives and children in the compound. The movie goes out of its way to show that the children likely saw their parents being killed in front of them, and wives saw their husbands dying. The raiding team is shown as troubled by these aspects, even as they continue.
The conservative columnist George Will occasionally will argue that individuals have to make a determination for themselves as to whether it is possible to “economize violence,” to employ violence now in an effort to prevent greater violence in the future. But even if it is morally valid to employ violence for prevention or retribution, it doesn’t sanitize the violence. Violence damages people—both the victims and the perpetrators. I feel as if Zero Dark Thirty broadcasts that message, but no one is listening because they are too busy re-litigating torture controversies. The people killed and tortured in this movie are portrayed as people, even if their screen time is brief. The violence undertaken for U.S. interests is not elided or ignored by the director. Only bin Laden himself is never shown, and in a way denied personhood by Bigelow and Boal.
And how does the movie end? With a weeping Maya having accomplished her goal. She does not know what she is going to do or where she is supposed to go. The quest for bin Laden has destroyed her as a social creature, has taken her humanity. It is tough for me to square the images of Zero Dark Thirty with a conclusion that it glamorizes the hunt for bin Laden or vindicates decisions taken by the Bush administration. The movie shows U.S. choices as complicated and painful. By showing images of episodes too often described only as text in a CNN chyron, it forces us to “see” the choices our government makes. The next time you are reading of a drone strike in Pakistan or a raid in Yemen, visualize what the scene of violence actually looked like. The decision might still be morally valid, perhaps even morally praiseworthy, but the action almost certainly was not pretty or glamorous. People are people. Violence is violence.