<em>Zero Dark Thirty</em> Is a Despicable Movie, Even if Bigelow and Boal Didn't Intend It That Way

Do yourself a favor, and don't go see. Don't encourage film-making that at best offers ambiguity about torture, and at worst endorses it. Spend the two and a half hours and the $10 on something more valuable, and moral.
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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 08: Kathryn Bigelow speaks with reporters at the Newseum during the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Washington D.C. Premiere on January 8, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 08: Kathryn Bigelow speaks with reporters at the Newseum during the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Washington D.C. Premiere on January 8, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

I finally saw Zero Dark Thirty last night, which according to my film critic friends means that only now am I actually allowed to opine on it. (I don't agree, having Tweeted up a storm about its evidently pro-torture ethos already.)

Since a lot has been said by now, here are just a few observations:

  • Torture is much more central to the movie even than I had been led to believe. Not only does the very first scene depict torture, but it does so partly in the name of character development for our gorgeous red-headed hero, showing how tough she is. Literally her first words in the movie are "I'm fine," which "Maya" says after watching a thug agent savagely beat (and ultimately waterboard) an injured, starved and trussed-up detainee. "I'm fine"? Think about that. Furthermore, in the movie, absolutely every bit of evidence that leads Maya to the courier who leads her to bin Laden is elicited through, after, and under threat of more torture. She tells the SEAL team near the end of the movie that she is sure of her information because it comes from "detainee reports." Other agents repeatedly either demand better information from detainees or, later, mope about the loss of what they clearly consider the only effective technique to elicit information. You cannot take this movie at its word and conclude anything other than that torture was an essential step toward tracking bin Laden down. Which it wasn't.
  • I asked myself as I watched the movie: So why, then, did director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal decide to make torture such a key element of the plot? There's been much speculation, including that they were basically punked by the CIA, which still can't come to terms with the horror of what it did. Some of us have accused them of essentially being pro-torture. Having now seen the movie and pondered it, I doubt Bigelow and Boal set out to make a pro-torture movie. I don't think they even necessarily think they made a pro-torture movie. I think what happened was, in turning this story into a Hollywood movie, they had to change some facts around to make things work -- in particular, to make the audience see its hero as an actual hero. For instance, Maya is obviously a composite: a totally understandable device to make the movie work better.
Here is what I suspect happened regarding torture: The filmmakers recognized that it was an important element of the 10+ year hunt for bin Laden, and that ignoring it completely wasn't a good option. In reality, torture was a horribly depraved and failed element of that hunt, but once the filmmakers decided it needed to be in the movie -- and therefore part of their hero's adventures -- they were in a bind. Could they portray it as not having worked? As just having been an exercise in unjustified and worthless brutality? Then the hero wouldn't have been so sympathetic; the audience might even be turned off. Could they portray her as having been disgusted by it and protesting it? FBI agents did, in real life, but not CIA, and it would have complicated things. So they had to portray torture as working, just as a plot device. Hollywood heroes can be flawed, but they can't be war-criminal flawed. So they made a totally pragmatic choice, not a moral one -- at least in their mind.
  • Another question that puzzled me: Why did the filmmakers so clearly depart from reality in their depiction of waterboarding? In the movie, the de facto drowning of the detainee was brutal, but it was also almost spontaneous and improvised. In real life, waterboarding was clinical and methodical. Memos from Cheney's lawyers described how many ounces per "pour." They were measured and counted. (That's how we know KSM got 183 pours.) The detainees were strapped into medical gurneys. There was medical staff in attendance. It was totally regimented and micromanaged by Washington. So why change that? Would that have made our hero even more culpable, going along with something so clearly premeditated and inhumane, rather than just brutal?
  • It's a very long movie. A very, very long movie. A very much too long movie. And by the end, torture seems far away. By the third hour, the drama revolves around the tracking down of an unspeakably evil man, and I strongly suspect most members of the audience once they finally leave the theater will be left with the impression that torture was at most a regrettable part of an ultimately successful operation. There is no comeuppance for any of the torturers (that part is true to life). In fact, nobody in the movie even once expresses any doubt about torture or its efficacy.
  • Another disappointment about the negligent treatment of torture by the filmmakers is that it has created a missed opportunity to discuss the other disturbing elements of the movie -- these depicted with great honesty. For instance, the filmmakers accurately recreate a raid that seemed aimed purely to kill, not capture, bin Laden. Similarly, it shows soldiers shooting unarmed wounded men to make sure they are dead, and shooting women and leaving them to die. Those are war crimes. Why wasn't capture even an option? Daniel Klaidman's very good and underappreciated book Kill or Capture tried to raise those issues, and this movie should have, as well.
  • All this "it's just a movie" bullshit really sticks in my craw. (Former senator now movie-industry shill Chris Dodd was hitting this note repeatedly last night.) The film declares itself as based on first-hand accounts, and more to the point, uses the horror over the real 9/11 attacks and the satisfaction over the real killing of bin Laden to heighten its emotional impact. It is clearly trying to exploit and build on personal feelings about things that really happened, so when it departs from reality, that is significant.
  • It's true that there are signs that the filmmakers were trying to be at least a bit ambiguous about the whole enterprise. The movie doesn't end as celebratorily as I had feared. Most notably, there is only one SEAL whooping. And the final image shows Maya in tears. But how the viewers interpret the cause of those tears is significant. I didn't see Maya as disgusted or remorseful; I saw her as exhausted, relieved, directionless and alone. And still very much a hero.
  • At last night's DC premiere, Bigelow spoke briefly before the movie, and Boal answered some questions from Martha Raddatz afterwards. But I don’t remember hearing either Bigelow or Boal use the word "torture" themselves, in the context of the acts they depicted. Maybe I am wrong, but I do know that Boal at one point spoke about "brutal" interrogations. A quick Google search doesn't find them using the word to describe what they show in their movie. Not calling obvious, objective torture by its real name is the sign of someone who can't face what really happened. Waterboarding, most obviously, is an archetypal form of torture. If in fact they are shrinking from calling the obvious torture they depict "torture" then they've got a lot of goddamn gall trying to appear like they're not taking sides.
  • Do yourself a favor, and don't go see this movie. Don't encourage film-making that at best offers ambiguity about torture, and at worst endorses it. Spend the two and a half hours and the $10 on something more valuable, and moral.

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