Let Zero Dark Thirty Be Multi-Faceted

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.

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15 thoughts on “Let Zero Dark Thirty Be Multi-Faceted

  1. This is a nice review Chris, and makes me feel I’ve been slightly unfair in my own interpretation of the film’s “message” regarding torture.

    However, while the utility of torture is not clearly affirmed or denied, and its ugliness (though not any long term ramifications for the victims) is vividly portrayed, the heroes of the film clearly do believe in its utility. And opposition to torture only appears in the form of “politics” – a distant, televised Candidate Obama looked on with either incomprehension or contempt by the agents doing the hard work on the ground, or diktats from “Washington” tying the hands of said agents. An alternative might have been to portray internal dissent regarding torture within the security “community” and the fact that torture was itself a policy decision by politicians and bureaucrats in DC.

    The heroes are, as you say, clearly portrayed as being damaged by what they do. The heroine, in particular, goes from being clearly disturbed by what she sees in the interrogation rooms to being an enthusiastic participant to being a crumpled and exhausted wreck with no apparent life outside of the hunt for UBL by. This could certainly be read as a parable for the US’s “journey” since 9/11/2001.But: it’s not clear that Maya was ever morally troubled by the torture (as opposed to naturally suffering some initial squeamishness); certainly she never voices any such qualms. Nor is it clear that she has become in any deep sense dehumanized or morally compromised by the end of the movie. In fact I dare say she doesn’t seem much more traumatized than a grad student at the end of a particularly torrid term – nothing a couple of weeks in the Bahamas and a few drinks at the CIA Singles Mixer wouldn’t fix anyway.

    The film is therefore also entirely consistent with the interpretation that the heroes of the film are just that – heroes protecting the people from terrorists and bearing all the moral burden while hypocritical politicians do little but carp and try to tie their hands. For me at least, there is no hint offered in the film that anything other than pure motives drove the agents carrying out the torture – I didn’t perceive any sense of vengeance (or frustration or laziness or sadism) you did. Nor is there any hint that innocent people have been caught up in the wider torture dragnet.

    Some might conclude that this ambiguity is a tribute to the artistic merits of the film – rather than “re-litigating” torture (wait, did I miss it being litigated the first time?), Bigelow manages to walk the thin line of contemporary American political divides, neither shying away from portraying the brutal methods used in the counter terrorist campaign nor offering crude or campaigning agitprop in place of a film. Personally I don’t think this is a line that should be walked or a difference that should be split; nor do I think a film that more strongly portrayed a policy of systematic torture as the “crime against humanity” it is recognized to be in international law would need to have been less compelling or subtle, or more “preachy”, as art.

    One last important point: you say it is “unclear if the information was revealed because of the torture, or just because of the sleep deprivation.” But extreme involuntary sleep deprivation is a form of torture (see e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/3376951.stm).

    • James, I think we can all agree that blog commentators should avoid being coherent and thoughtful. Your blatant disregard for internet norms has been noted, and I’ve asked Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal to come up with a punishment for you that is acceptable on both sides of the American political divide.

  2. I thought the movie was excellent, and I’m not one for violence. The torture scenes were disturbing, although they were depicted as yielding important information. What the movie failed to portray was the sadistic little torture clique of young Americans that was uncovered, Abu Graib was it?

  3. Nice to see a similar opinion on this one. I think the film did an incredible job being in a sense neutral, and that was the point. This gave the viewer the gift of just experiencing the content and its issues for what they are. Messy, horrifying, complicated. If they had not shown torture, it would have been a lot simpler, but it is not simple. There was no jumping for joy from Maya in the end, there was no soaring music or high fives for her. For me, it said everything you did, it eluded to another long road ahead for her. There was no simple clean ending for her, and there was no clean and simple viewing for us.

  4. I have not yet seen the movie but bravo on your essay. I usually find “message movies” far less interesting and effective than “descriptive movies”. If the script allows a complex issue to be complex, then more power to it and ever-greater is my own desire to see it.

  5. Bigelow’s movies must be seen with your guts, not with your eyes and even less so with the rational part of your brain. You need the punch, the blast, the message straight into your stomach. What’s a movie without this kind of force, if not two hours wasted in a buttered popcorn smell darkness?

  6. It doesn’t have to “glamorize” to sell a lie. I hope this propaganda exercise is scorned and vilified for the blatant CIA lies it peddles. And “sleep deprivation” is also a form of torture. This land is slipping into a Nazi reich, and nationalistic propaganda films like this are an intrinsic part of it.

    Zero Dark Thirty Scandal Files

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