Zero Dark Thirty is a spy thriller about the tracking and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Good police work did it, the film says, and it aims to show (in the circumstances) what good police work amounts to. The story is tense and well-paced: a competent addition to the genre of 13 Rue Madeleine and The Hunt for Red October, by a director, Katherine Bigelow, who has made action pictures her métier. It does not look to compete with a serious work of history and imagination like The Battle of Algiers. There is no question here of exploring a complex subject with a semblance of human depth. Rather, Zero Dark Thirty accepts the ready prejudices and fears of its American audience and builds up pressure for two hours to prepare the explosion and release of the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. The first two hours skip forward selectively to cover the trajectory of ten years. The final twenty-five minutes of action are portrayed almost in real time.
Until Americans stop indulging our elected officials in their appetite for secrecy, we will not know exactly what orders the Navy Seals carried into Abbottabad. Pretty clearly, it was a kill mission and not "Capture or Kill." Zero Dark Thirty makes killing the personal preference of its heroine, Maya, a CIA agent who begins the hunt in September 2001 and whose relentless pursuit is clinched by success. When she talks to the Navy Seals team, she says she wants them to "kill him for me." The "me" element in the international hunt, and its reflexive connection to revenge, is emphasized more than once. This overtly simplifies an area of moral doubt which the film in other ways simplifies covertly. Maya's stamina, force, and drive somehow place her beyond challenge. By the end, her superiors at CIA are intimidated, and we feel they ought to be. Maya has no friends, and no life outside the hunt, but her determination is itself a sort of passion. It is, in fact, the only passion that is represented in the film.
How was Bin Laden found? Zero Dark Thirty tells us that it was done by the torture of detainees; by the collection and deduction of evidence from dossiers, videos, recorded phone calls and intercepted emails; and by tailing couriers. All of these methods the movie dispassionately records, and it affirms the efficacy of all. The narrative lacks the patience and tightness to illustrate many convincing particulars of the detective work. That it leaves us in the dark, however, is also part of the point. We Americans, the film is saying, must put ourselves in the hands of the experts who have mastered the darkness. In the early minutes, agents are heard speaking fast and very allusively, using names and references no viewer can possibly track, and this works as both a hint and an apology. We watch from the outside, we join the chase in the middle, we should not expect to follow the logic of authorities who are already far advanced.
The routine use of torture is the subject of much of the first half of Zero Dark Thirty. Before writing those parts, the screenwriter Mark Boal evidently picked up some knowledge of the methods the CIA was accused of having employed -- methods it denied having incorporated but which the film (in a tone that cannot be mistaken for accusation) depicts as standard practice. The master technique for destruction of the personalities of the captured was "learned helplessness": a therapy-of-harm first broached in experiments on dogs by the psychologist Martin Seligman. Two freelance entrepreneurs of behavior modification, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, persuaded the CIA to let them instruct agents in how to adapt the technique of learned helplessness for use on the detainees in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This history was recounted in impressive detail by Jane Mayer in The Dark Side and by Alfred McCoy in A Question of Torture, and Boal's screenplay catches some shadows of the truth that will be read differently by people who know those books. "He has to learn how helpless he is," Maya is told by the agent whose brutal interrogation of a detainee she has just witnessed. "Everybody breaks in the end," the same agent tells a detainee later on. "It's biology." We hear him say to another: "I will break you." One detainee, asked to give up names and addresses to the agents, answers with pained compliance: "I do not want to be tortured again." He confesses, and his information is shown to assist the hunt.
Bigelow and Boal have denied that they meant to show that torture produces the desired information. No viewer of the film, without being primed by that evasion, would suppose the film has a complex attitude here. It suggests that torture is regrettable but necessary -- the agent who says he will break his victim also says he needs a rest after months and "100 naked bodies" -- and it guides us to the conclusion that torture works. Zero Dark Thirty portrays the torture-agents as essentially good people: technicians working at a grim but unavoidable job. Nowhere do we catch a whiff of sadism or racism or, with the exception of Maya, strong feeling of any kind. Her passion, however, is not for violence as such but for violence (including torture) as a means to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Among the methods that we see and that, if we identify with Maya, we must countenance as she does, the following are notable: slapping and punching in the face; being hung spread-eagled from the ceiling in wrist stirrups; being shackled in a dog collar and pressed down to the ground on all fours; the water torture ("waterboarding"); being stripped naked below the waist for exposure to the eyes of a woman; confinement in a box the size of a coffin; prolonged sleep-deprivation.
The agents get their first big break when they pull a detainee out of confinement. They give him something decent to eat and talk with him after he has gone 96 hours without sleep. They have realized that in his exhausted and hallucinatory state, they can make him believe that he has already given up information that they want. Once they break his spirit by inducing him to think he betrayed himself, he may soften and be tricked into giving them what they really want. It works. We are made to see a triumph for torture by its long-term effect. Boal, strangely, has defended this moment as a deliberate irony, saying that the information only comes when the agents share with the prisoner "a civilized lunch." Look again at the summary. A civilized lunch? Boal's remark shrugs off the moral challenge with callous flippancy of a sort the agents themselves in Zero Dark Thirty are never heard to utter. The truth is that they torture him, deprive him of sleep for four days and four nights, threaten him with further torture but convince him he has already confessed much of what they are looking for -- and then he comes over. The method, to repeat, is felt to justify itself by the result. This success is referred to later in the film: "We got it from the detainee."
While watching Zero Dark Thirty in the mood of acceptance it promotes, one can barely recall the emotions that so many felt when the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo first emerged. We saw photographs of the prison guards Lynndie England and Charles Grainer using several of the methods listed above. The shock, at the time, was immediate and universal. The defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was compelled to formulate the tactical response that such practices were an awful aberration. President Bush said that he was horrified but the offenders were a few bad apples. These denials were not altogether believed, but they were allowed to throw a decent cover over the extent of the crimes. Practices that most Americans would not accept, in 2004, Zero Dark Thirty allows us to ratify in 2013 as spectators in the theater.
Maya's reactions to the spectacle of torture are central to that effect. She is present in most of the film. Her responses shape our own -- she is a "reflector" for the audience. When Maya first sees a detainee being tortured, she shrinks a little, pulls back into herself, hugs her elbows to her chest and looks sidelong at the action, rather than face it directly. She takes no pleasure in the brutality; nor do any of the agents. All this part of the movie is airbrushed, half-unreal, even though the scenes are recurrent. Nothing is seen or said about the subsequent fate of the prisoners. It is implied that those who cooperate fare relatively well and those who refuse will be sorry that they refused. Maya, early on, deciding whether to wear a mask while witnessing a torture, asks about the detainee, "Will he ever get out?" The interrogator assures her: "Never." So she looks on with the mask removed, and eventually he is stripped below the waist, for her to look at if she pleases.
Maya's respect for torture, in view of the results it brings, sets a "smart" example for the audience. (She is the cleverest person in the movie.) Meanwhile, the actual brutality that we witness is not especially harsh by the standards of current Hollywood films. We are given to understand that most of the violence against detainees has taken place off camera. The welts may not be pretty, but there are a minimum of shouts and groans, the wrong man is never slapped or beaten. No American speaks for a stance different from Maya's. And yet the history, as recounted by Philippe Sands in Torture Team, for example, shows that there were such people, both in the CIA and among the military legal counselors who sought to exclude evidence based on torture. Morris Davis, Stephen Abraham, and Alberto Mora are the names of some of them. They ought to be better known, and the president who officially abolished torture should have cared enough to speak such names with gratitude. Perhaps silence is halfway to forgetting. We have come a long road since 2004 to achieve the acceptance that Zero Dark Thirty at once registers and contributes to foster.
Complicity by non-aesthetic sources was required for the success of this film. There was the political complicity of President Obama, along with CIA director Panetta, in 2009, when they assured agents there would be no prosecutions for crimes committed in the previous administration; and the parallel exertions of officials like David Margolis at the justice department's Office of Professional Responsibility, whose 2010 report downgraded the assessment against the torture lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee from "professional misconduct" to merely "poor judgment." What does this have to do with the making of Zero Dark Thirty? "The sad truth," writes Karen Greenberg in a disturbing analysis, "is that Zero Dark Thirty could not have been produced in its present form if any of the officials who created and implemented U.S. torture policy had been held accountable for what happened, or any genuine sunshine had been thrown upon it." In that case it would have been like making a film about a gangland murder as viewed by the police -- a crime that in real life the police went after -- but showing it in the film as if all the police on the scene had watched and done nothing. Such a film would stand exposed, and the falseness would draw general comment.
Yet regarding the American torture of prisoners, our leading officials said it was wrong, but then did nothing to back their saying so, nothing to prove that we believed it was wrong. The movie if anything endorses an attitude akin to the new president's: acceptance (with distaste) of a new policy of official ban supported by no accountability. For that is the status quo, and Zero Dark Thirty has this curious contradiction at its heart. Whatever can be absorbed into the story of the successful killing now qualifies as a necessary step toward the killing. The mood of self-protective abridgment and untruth was best captured by Barack Obama when he said -- as he often did before and during the 2012 election campaign -- that "we delivered justice to Bin Laden." Delivered justice. The neutralizing abstraction of the phrase, so dear to the president, hovers like a bad angel over the entire length of Zero Dark Thirty.
Another sort of complicity has been observable among the mainstream reviewers of the film. Manohla Dargis, David Denby, Joe Morgenstern, Richard Corliss, A.O. Scott, and others have admired Zero Dark Thirty exorbitantly but have also spoken of finding it "troubling" or "twisted." They wrote as if the twist and trouble were a secondary matter, and aesthetic approval could somehow be passed separately from all that extraneous information. "A seamless weave of truth and drama," Dargis called the movie in the New York Times, in a phrase that is itself a seamless weave of judgment and refusal to judge. She added: "It is hard to imagine anyone watching [the scenes of torture] without feeling shaken or repulsed," but you do not have to imagine such persons: they are all over the comments the film has drawn online. Dargis credits the filmmakers with having shown respect for viewers who are "capable of filling in the blanks"; but was this omission of inconvenient facts a sign of respect, or rather of opportunism mixed with contempt? David Denby in the New Yorker wrote that the film "combines ruthlessness and humanity in a manner that is paradoxical and disconcerting yet satisfying as art." A sporting sentence, but cloudy. You could equally say that the movie "combines gentleness and inhumanity in a manner that is disconcerting yet simple and somehow satisfying as art." A.O. Scott, in counting the "brutal geopolitical thriller" among his top-rated films of 2012, said it was "an attempt to grapple honestly with the moral complexities of the war on terror"; but honest is just what the film is not, if honesty implies candor, completeness, and an educated judgment; and Zero Dark Thirty does not grapple with complexities so much as it submits to convention and myth.
The mainstream reviewers were all influenced by the patina of prestige associated with the name of Kathryn Bigelow, and by the knowledge that her last film, The Hurt Locker, another thriller of the war on terror, won her an Oscar as best director. In the earlier movie Bigelow had offered, with narrowly credible realism, a portrait of the bravery and self-sacrifice of an army bomb squad in Iraq. Yet the success of The Hurt Locker depended on a picturesque economy that could hardly be called realistic. The tight focus and the bracing story of a single unit called for the exclusion of almost all other evidence of the American occupation.
The aesthetic apology signaled by the reviewers, "Nobody here but us artists!", is part of a larger tendency in the entertainment culture. Bigelow herself in defending the movie at first took an aesthetic exemption. An op-ed that she recently wrote for the Los Angeles Times was more elaborate and confused: she now declares that her film is "rigorous" (historically rigorous? logically? morally?) and avows that she is a "lifelong pacifist" who supports "all protests against the use of torture." An interesting profession of faith, and very timely, but she soon goes on to other themes, and speaks for the freedom of the artist, as if someone had threatened to censor her movie. Her column ends by asserting that Bin Laden was "defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines." What Americans could this mean? Anyway the gambit about being a lifelong pacifist is a wild piece of delusion. People who work as entertainers must consent to be judged by their entertainments, since that is how they have their impact, and nobody would mistake Bigelow's oeuvre for the work of a lifelong pacifist. Zero Dark Thirty adds glamour to the push toward counterterrorism, the new form of the war on terror that many in the CIA opposed. Oliver Stone's Salvador and Platoon showed far more anti-war sentiment than The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, but if Stone ever begged credit for being a "lifelong pacifist" in the privacy of his mind, people would rightly laugh. Bigelow has elsewhere invoked the neutrality of the I-am-a-camera aesthetic: "depiction," she has said of the scenes of torture witnessed by Maya, "is not endorsement." That is false in many circumstances. If you depict actions once thought to be monstrous, and you do so in a manner that renders them thinkable and even justified, you are going a long way to endorse what you have depicted.
The propaganda value of the female protagonist in a film like this should not be neglected. When Bigelow won her academy award, it was widely treated not only as a feminist triumph but as a special and "gendered" sort of vindication. After all, the director's chosen subject was the male subject of war. She had beaten the men at their own game. And that is what Maya is seen to do in the hunt for Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. There are four white women who have a noticeable presence in the film, and they are all pictured as quick, intelligent, and watchful. By contrast, the CIA higher-ups who slow Maya's progress or block her path are timeservers; and they are all men. Average officials, half asleep on the job, often glimpsed leaning back in a swivel chair or practicing their golf putts in their office, and treating her fanatical dedication with weary skepticism, the most these men seem capable of is a bureaucratic tantrum now and then. Though this contrast lies a little under the surface, it has doubtless been an element in the reception of Zero Dark Thirty. Maya, as a female agent in the field, is an underdog who can do what others could not do without reproach. Her quality is plain in the first half hour. And the process by which we acquit her runs oddly parallel to the process by which we have spared from blame a young idealistic president who chose to continue many of the same policies that were unconditionally denounced under George W. Bush. It is felt to be different, somehow, when a woman does it, just as it is different when our first black president does it.
The answers given by Bigelow and Boal to justify the normalizing of torture in Zero Dark Thirty have been vain, wheedling, and dodgy. They are a clever pair of filmmakers, without political or moral depth, but here, perhaps more than they realized, they were playing with fire. Zero Dark Thirty integrates torture into the war on terror. It arranges our view of the success of torture in a way that aborts thought. It omits all evidence that after September 11 there were courageous Americans with a conscience who worked against terrorism even as they protested against torture. The filmmakers have said that their approach is "journalistic," and by that they seem to mean that the film imitates what journalism has become. Unfortunately this is true. In fact, the film resembles much of the journalism of the war on terror: cool, wised-up, sure that there are many points of view out there, but "embedded" with American troops, because what choice do we have? Only one authority on record -- Jose Rodriguez, the CIA official who ordered the destruction of interrogation videotapes -- has claimed that data extracted by torture led to Osama Bin Laden. So Zero Dark Thirty betrays a weak control of the available facts, and yet it loves Americans for what we suffered twelve years ago. That will be enough for many. But the deadpan narrative of extrajudicial killings is not going to be experienced in the same way everywhere. It will play differently in Pakistan.