Zero Dark Thirty’s critics are wrong. The movie doesn’t glorify torture. It justifies it. The film takes pains to show that there is no glory. The torture scenes are grueling and unpleasant. Make no mistake, torture works. But, like everything else in the story, it’s presented as grimly necessary. The upshot is “it’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it.”
The film gives us tortured Muslim bodies and, finally, Osama’s corpse. But in doing so, it also tortures us. Masochistic liberal guilt serves an ideological function. We must suffer to be reminded that we’re Good Liberals. Zero Dark Thirty is the feel good feel bad movie of the year. This explains why some of the movie’s biggest fans seem so conflicted. David Edelstein calls the film “borderline fascistic” before declaring it a “masterpiece.”
Zero Dark Thirty begins with actual anguished emergency calls placed on 9/11 and ends with its heroine , not celebrating, but alone shedding tears on the tarmac. No low angle shots of the hero. No triumphant score. This is today’s po-faced propaganda. Ambient music. Ambiguous tears. Conflicted heroes.
Its storytelling is minimal, almost affectless, as if the script were transcribed from a top secret Wikipedia page. Documentary footage is woven seamlessly into the mix. In its bones, it’s an action movie. But all of the fun has been drained out. It is dark, punishing and grim. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty strikes the precise posture of ambivalence necessary in the Obama era. We must have a veneer of moral seriousness. We must have flawed heroes. We can celebrate this patriotic murder, but in a dignified, nuanced way.
The viewer must feel complicit, but not too complicit. The final murderous raid on bin Laden’s compound is seen partially through the green tinted POV of the Seals’ night vision goggles. The shots are held long enough for us to be reminded of their similarity to “first person shooter” video games, but not too long for us to draw any unpleasant comparisons to the films’ Medal of Honor marketing tie-ins. Many critics have defended Zero Dark Thirty’s apparent moral ambiguity by seizing on this complicity. Maya, they claim, is our surrogate and through her, we are implicated in the crimes of the national security state.
This may be true, but it distracts us from a more important fact. We are already complicit.
The crimes depicted in Zero Dark Thirty actually happened. They were done in our name. The victims have been denied justice. Some of them died. Their stories can’t be told in a courtroom. The people who planned and defended these crimes have been rewarded with jobs in academia and in the Obama administration. The CIA destroyed the videotapes documenting these crimes and then conspired with the makers of Zero Dark Thirty to restage them in a more flattering context.
The true complicity in Zero Dark Thirty is not between Maya and the viewer but between the filmmakers and the CIA. Screenwriter Mark Boal recently compared his situation to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. But Kiriakou is going to prison, while Boal is going to the Oscars. If the atrocities depicted in the film are based in fact, then Boal and Bigelow may have learned privileged information about crimes against humanity. Information that has been denied to journalists, to the public, and apparently even to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Information that could help torture victims and their families pursue the justice that has been consistently denied to them by President Obama.
The characters of Maya and Dan are based on real CIA agents. They are not flawed heroes. They are war criminals. Neither Maya, nor her likely real life counterpart are feminist role models. This is not simply, as Boal claims, the story of “a Western liberated woman who brought down Al Qaeda.” It is also the story of a torture regime that operated with impunity. The film acts as that regime’s liberal apologia, laundering crimes of systematic torture and sexual humiliation in what amounts to cynical “feminist” pinkwashing. Maya and Dan’s real-life counterparts belong in a courtroom, not as heroes on a movie screen.
Boal and Bigelow also make themselves complicit in their press appearances for the film, by carefully avoiding the word “torture” in favor of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation.” This equivocation may be the most telling aspect about Zero Dark Thirty. Boal and Bigelow are content to rub our noses in the sadism of the CIA’s torture program– to make us squirm as Maya does, when she first sees a man chained by his wrists and stripped naked. But when it comes to naming the images they show us, they default to the sterile language of the technocrat.
It is true that the focus on torture distracts us from equally important issues. The raid on bin Laden’s compound was itself illegal, a fact that no one seems keen to revisit. Despite early White House claims, the raid was also a kill mission, with no effort made to capture bin Laden. This paved the way for Obama’s increasing use of extrajudicial assassination, a tactic that should be at least as troubling as the now defunct torture program. The film also confirms that the mission’s code name for bin Laden was Geronimo, underscoring the racist, colonialist nature of the War on Terror.
While the film operates in a notably dour register, muting the traditional patriotic cues, its marketing is far less nuanced. Zero Dark Thirty is being advertised as nothing less than the story of “the greatest manhunt in history.” The movie’s Twitter feed is particularly jingoistic, often pairing tributes to real life military figures with images from the film.
It’s almost as if they want you to confuse the movie with real life.
There have been many articles written on the film, and there are still more to come as it opens nationwide today (also the 11th anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison.) Here are a few that I think are essential reading on the topic.
Glenn Greenwald has done a thorough job of compiling the quotes of people who believe the film promotes the efficacy of torture. Peter Maas wrote about Zero Dark Thirty as an example of “government embedded filmmaking.” Jane Mayer dissected the film’s depiction of torture. Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney’s piece looked at the film’s style and substance.
The debate about Zero Dark Thirty has been characterized as a fight between pundits and film critics, or as Scott Tobias said between “the political class” and “aesthetes.” I think the true divide is the same one we’ve seen ever since Obama took office– between leftists and liberals. If you’re looking for formal analysis, I highly recommend the reviews by film critics Richard Brody and Jeff Reichert. I don’t know how either critic identifies on the political spectrum, but their essays illuminate the relationship between the film’s troubling ideology and its aesthetics.