‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and Rejecting Torture in the Post-Cheney Era

By  · Published on January 15th, 2013

Kathryn Bigelow’s awards season contender and recent winter box office champion Zero Dark Thirty was released wide on the coattails of considerable controversy pertaining to the film’s depiction of torture. Journalists Frank Bruni and Glenn Greenwald, critic David Edelstein, and documentarian Alex Gibney are amongst those who have criticized the film for seemingly forging a direct link between “advanced interrogation techniques” (better known as “torture”) and the actionable intelligence that lead to the death of Osama bin Laden. This controversy has gone far beyond the film community; politicians and CIA spokespersons have called the film out for alleged misrepresentation.

After finally seeing Zero Dark Thirty after reading about this controversy for months, I wonder, did any of these people see the same film I saw? And are criticisms like these really what it means to be anti-torture in a post-Cheney America?

If the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty seriously misrepresented the facts about the CIA mission that lead to May 2, 2011 (that is, fabrications beyond the dramatizing, exaggerating, and condensing generally expected of a Hollywood depiction of real events), then they should, by all means, be taken to task by political and cultural critics. No matter the dedication toward accuracy, relationships between events and their representation are never direct or unchanged by intervention; transparency about this process is only a good thing. But in an awards season that features a seeming glut of history-based drama, assessing the accuracy of Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the same thing as following up on the much less recent, far more disclosed events of Argo and Lincoln. In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, we are blindly reliant upon expertise and the dramatized dissemination of info from privileged sources located somewhere behind the curtains – specifically, the collaboration between a major studio and the CIA.

As we move into the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, it’s downright strange to see a movie whose narrative logic is dependent upon information that is so decidedly un-democratized.

On the other hand, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t John Wayne’s The Green Berets. The film can hardly stand up straight as a potential ideological bulwark against criticisms of the tactics, casualties, and compromises endured during the War on Terror. While there can be no doubt at this point about a behind-the-scenes collaboration between Sony and the CIA, and while Zero Dark Thirty is a narrative about “success” amidst a decade of failure and confusion, I don’t get a sense that the CIA would be any more comfortable with the idea of Zero Dark Thirty as a publicity microphone than they would with Homeland. Or, if they are, they really shouldn’t be.

Zero Dark Thirty is consistent with Bigelow’s other work in that it takes on a multifaceted, subcultural, perhaps even radical gaze onto, or through, the depiction of a bubble society. Bigelow seems to be fascinated with microcosmic gatherings of people that operate by their own internal logic, whether that be a biker gang in The Loveless or the Russian submarine crew in K-19: The Widowmaker. Bigelow’s work is most interesting when she depicts disparate or shifting perspectives within these societies, like the transformation of a cowboy-turned-vampire in Near Dark, the undercover FBI agent-turned-surfer-dude in Point Break, the black market peddler-turned-digital age superhero in the post-grunge dystopia of Strange Days, or (of course) the hothead bomb diffuser of The Hurt Locker who plays by his own rules in a foreign land where rules are needed as an essential comfort of possible survival.

But as my friend Maggie Rossman astutely observed after our screening, Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow’s return to the gendered social stratification of Blue Steel. As Bigelow’s films have been praised for her fascinating depictions of masculinity, her depictions of women are rarely discussed in comparison. The world of Bigelow’s filmography, after all, contains few leading women. Until this year, Blue Steel – Bigelow’s action thriller about a police officer (Jamie Lee Curtis) who must contend with both the organizational patriarchy of her line of work and a Wall Street psycho-killer Ur-man – was the rare exception. Through Jessica Chastain’s Maya, Bigelow revisits a hermetically sealed patriarchy, this time in the world of covert military operations. Maya is not the only woman in this system, but much of the film is spent depicting Maya (who, like Claire Danes’s Carrie in Homeland, defines herself comprehensively and exhaustively through her work) contorting throughout an upscale battle against her interchangeable male counterparts in order to seek her chosen target.

And this brings us back to the question of torture. The film’s first images (after an audio-only opening of ostensibly authentic 9/11 phone calls) features one of several scenes of so-called “enhanced interrogation” enacted by Jason Carke’s Dan against a detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb). Dan unflinchingly enacts brutality on Ammar, who is regularly too exhausted, delirious and (literally) suffocated to provide anything resembling functional answers. Maya watches from the corners of her eye; she is a complicit participant (giving Dan a pitcher to waterboard with), but is clearly far from comfortable being the arm of barbarism. Later, Dan humiliates Ammar by pulling Ammar’s pants down before briefly leaving the room. That Dan leaves the naked detainee for a woman’s eyes to see is no accident; this is psychosexual humiliation. Maya flinches, and Ammar pleads Maya to stop Dan’s acts of monstrosity (he literally says, “he’s a monster”). Maya responds with something to the effect of, “Give us the information we want, and this will stop.” Did Ammar see an authentic empathetic gaze in Maya, or was this a gender-based assumption rooted in desperation? Is Maya reluctant to challenge Dan’s role as interrogator, or does she genuinely believe this behavior will lead to the information she needs?

Either way, that Maya clearly did not give Ammar the sympathy he expected or the answer he wanted speaks to the nuanced representation of the social stratification of the classified intelligence community depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. Many criticisms of the film’s representations of torture simply describe these instances as “torture” causally leading to capture, as if there exists some sort of singular, adequately comprehensive image associated with the term. To state simply that torture leads to intelligence in the film assumes that the film has a unified, coherent, unambiguous, non-embattled relationship to that representation. In other words, it’s assuming representation as endorsement, which relegates Zero Dark Thirty to the realm of pure, direct jingoism. “They showed torture, they showed Osama bin Laden killed, therefore they show that torture works.”

But in this scene alone, there exist competing, ambivalent relationships to the events taking place. Yes, this is most definitely torture, but its function in relation to those who gaze upon the act is hardly singular or unified. Maya may be the film’s protagonist, but she is not a moral compass in the simplistic terms of traditional cinematic heroism. Rather, her fluctuating role within a fraternal organization that hardly makes room for her speaks to her reaction when initially exposed to torture: she is complicit in the organization’s overall ideological operation, but her gaze is never perfectly aligned with it. And as Maya stands partly outside the events she directly orchestrates or indirectly partakes in, our own moral and ideological position in relation to the events depicted is comparably indirect.

Zero Dark Thirty is, on its surface, one of Bigelow’s least “stylized” films. It lacks the slow motion orchestras of detonation beautifully realized in The Hurt Locker, or the apocalyptic, turned-to-11 aesthetic cacophony of Strange Days. The film instead takes a “journalistic approach,” a problematic term that makes an appeal towards “objectivity” and attempts to relinquish the film from the responsibility of its own representations. Zero Dark Thirty is a film with an ideology, a perspective, and a style; but realism is often mistaken as a lack of all three of these things.

As part of the “procedural” genre, the film seems to ask that we view it as a reporting of recreated events. The film is, at its most superficial level, a nationalistic high five for the prevailing narrative of American exceptionalism. But it’s easy to mistake Zero Dark Thirty as only this. One need only look at the gazes between characters to see fissures in the film’s top layer of jingoism: The role of intuition, deductive reasoning, and confirmation bias in top-level military intervention. Chris Pratt glancing on the still body of the unarmed woman he shot to death during the invasion of the house in Pakistan. The polyvalent gaze upon the tortured body of Ammar. Zero Dark Thirty is a procedural in the sense that it lays bare, in vast detail and better than any war film to come out in quite some time, the many machinations involved in the project of American ideology as manifested through military action. But ideology here is an area of dispute, not a given. Surprisingly, there are few things that are straightforward or conclusive in this linear, fast-paced film about an assassination mission. As stated by CIA Acting Director Michael Morell in his criticism of the film,

“And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”

If Zero Dark Thirty is empirically inaccurate, then this should be made known. I don’t have the knowledge to say so myself. However, I do feel deeply uncomfortable about the fact that this film has been a central object of focus for the campaign against torture. Firstly, these criticisms are suspicious of representation as a given, assuming that representation alone means a whole litany of things including causality, endorsement, or other false conclusions that deny the complex, multifarious, ambivalent perspectives that cinema can realize.

Secondly, the repeated arguments regarding torture as leveled against this film have been that torture didn’t – and doesn’t – lead to actionable intelligence. In terms of the larger goals and reasoning that informs anti-torture advocacy, this doesn’t really outline the ethical stance against torture. If the issue of “actionable intelligence” is relevant to the conversation, then that isn’t so much a position “against torture,” but rather against “useless” torture. Any insinuation of torture’s effectiveness should not pose such a grave threat to a moral argument against it. Taking a humanist stance against torture on principle means rejecting torture on principle. Torture’s unacceptability shouldn’t be a question of its effectiveness.

Zero Dark Thirty is currently the nexus of many political conversations and controversies. Its representations warrant investigation and scrutiny. But the relevant political conclusions should take into account the ways in which events are represented in the film, not only the representations themselves. While Zero Dark Thirty is turned into a bogeyman in some places and a straw man in others, this deceivingly “straightforward” procedural is clearly too complex for a mainstream political discourse that prefers to remain prescriptive.