[Spoiler Alert: There’s a lot of description of the movie here; if you haven’t watched it yet, you might not want to read this]
Zero Dark Thirty opens with audio clips of emergency calls from September 11th, 2001. The screen is black. The calls are harrowing. The movie then jumps ahead several years and puts us in a CIA “black site,” where a prisoner is being tortured. An agent named Dan is doing most of the torturing, and a novice agent named Maya is watching.
It’s all very matter-of-fact. Dan says, repeatedly, “You lie to me, I hurt you.” And he does. Maya is unnerved at first, and clearly uncomfortable, but she gets over it. When she is finally – briefly – left alone with the prisoner, he tells her, “Your friend is an animal. Please help me.” She just stares blankly and tells him to help himself by telling the truth. After that she shows no compunction about torture in her obsessive hunt for Osama bin Laden. No one in this film does, really. Nor do they justify their participation in torture with long-winded speeches about fighting for democracy, or breaking a few eggs, or ends and means, or truths that you can’t handle. This is not an Aaron Sorkin movie.
Apparently, though, many of Zero Dark Thirty’s critics would prefer an Aaron Sorkin movie. Dan Froomkin wants to know why “nobody in the movie even once expresses any doubt about torture or its efficacy,” and notes the “missed opportunity to discuss the other disturbing elements of the movie,” such as the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in which the SEALs are shown killing unarmed civilians. Jane Mayer, at the New Yorker, similarly laments the lack of “a single scene in which torture is questioned.”
I understand the basic complaint here: difficult subjects call for some sort of commentary. I think it’s odd, for instance, to make a movie set against the backdrop of hydraulic fracturing without making any real comment on the continuing controversy. But “fracking” is little more than a plot device in Promised Land, whereas torture is central to Zero Dark Thirty. I would agree with the film’s critics if Zero Dark Thirty included only a brief, sterilized torture scene that yielded information but no sense of gravity. But that’s not the case. Zero Dark Thirtyspends roughly a fifth of its screentime depicting torture. And it’s rough: the tortured prisoner is strung up for hours; is deprived of sleep for days; is stuffed inside a small box; is stripped nearly naked and led along the floor in a dog collar; and is waterboarded. And this extended sequence, the film makes clear, is just one example of many; Maya searches for clues through stacks of discs on her desk, many of them recording tortured confessions. Torture is not simply an element of the story that goes unaddressed; it is a pivot on which the movie rotates.
The criticism of the film comes from several angles. One is the complaint that the film plays fast and loose with the facts, most consequentially in showing evidence gained from torture playing a key role in locating Osama Bin Laden. Not only journalists but United States Senators have made this point. This is an important debate. On the one hand, the film depicts torture as failing in several instances and shows agents themselves questioning torture’s utility (although not its morality). And the CIA (the real CIA) has essentially admitted that torture did play a small role in the search for bin Laden. On the other hand, as Zero Dark Thirty’s critics have repeatedly pointed out, the movie shows key information arising from torture sessions – if not directly then indirectly – and implies at several points that torture leads to revelation. It’s difficult – but important – to weigh the movie’s depiction of torture as instrumental in finding Osama bin Laden against its focus on torture as central to American operations, a focus that should make audiences very uncomfortable.
Another angle of criticism – more strident, and less justified – is that the film’s style and tone legitimize torture. Presumably, that claim is what led several members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, including Martin Sheen, to call for a boycott. Leading the charge against Zero Dark Thirty from this particular angle is Glenn Greenwald who calls it a “torture-glorifying film.” Greenwald’s argument comes down to what he claims is a simple equation: “There is zero doubt…that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists,” he writes. Because the killing of bin Laden is considered a fundamentally good moment in U.S. foreign policy, anything that produced that moment will be considered fundamentally good as well. “For that reason, to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is – by definition – to glorify X.”
That’s a pretty mechanistic understanding of movies, not to mention popular opinion, an understanding which leaves no room for interpretation or subjectivity. It’s worth noting, then, that the New York Times’s Frank Bruni disapproves of the film’s opening because torture “immediately follows a bone-chilling, audio-only prologue of the voices of terrified Americans trapped in the towering inferno of the World Trade Center. It’s set up as payback.” For Bruni, the audio clips are played to legitimize the torture that follows. Alex Gibney, on the other hand, writes: “For me, along with the very ending, this was one of the best moments in the film. The juxtaposition of the agony of 9/11 with the payback that followed…perfectly captured a bitter poetic truth about how members of the Bush Administration responded to tragedy.”
Both of these writers criticize Zero Dark Thirty for many of the same reasons that Greenwald does, but they have divergent understandings of what the film’s first five minutes mean. Despite Greenwald’s mathematical claims about the film’s unambiguous meaning, ambiguity is what makes this film work.
Greenwald’s imposition of his own black-and-white view onto a movie that is mostly grey becomes clearest when he describes the CIA agents that are at the center of the story. He calls Maya – played by Jessica Chastain – a “pure, saintly heroine,” and all of the other American characters “heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists.” The film overall is “the ultimate hagiography” of the CIA. David Clennon, one of the Academy members calling for a boycott, similarly says that the film “makes heroes of Americans who commit the crime of torture.”
It’s hard to imagine a greater misreading of Zero Dark Thirty. Maya is not pure and saintly in any sense. Her character is a cipher; we learn nothing about her backstory, about her family, about her relationships beyond one agency friendship, about her motivation for what she is doing. We don’t even know her last name. She is a nearly robotic agent, fixated on killing bin Laden and apparently interested in nothing else. The other agents and personnel are, if anything, less likable. Maya’s station chief seems to be concerned most of all with his career. One of his supervisors operates largely according to political pressure, and at one point comes into a room full of agents, bangs his fist on the table, and yells, “Find me somebody to kill!” Other than Navy SEAL Team Six (more on them later), there are almost no characters who demonstrate genuine personality, let alone heroism. There is no flag-waving, no trumpet-playing, no fireworks display in Zero Dark Thirty. The final raid is carried out with no soundtrack. When bin Laden is finally killed, it happens so fast that you don’t realize it for several seconds. And the final scene is of Maya alone in an airplane, with no pomp and circumstance and little sense of wrongs having been righted.
The most off-base statement that Greenwald makes, however, is the following:
Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims.
Yes, except for the thirty minutes of torture that open the film, torture carried out by Americans against a Muslim prisoner. In fact, the movie is bookended by scenes of American violence: the opening torture sequence and the final raid by the Navy SEALs. Those SEALs are at times a little too casual and gung ho for me, in a way that would fit better in a Schwarzenegger flick, but when the final raid is conducted it is done seriously, and with considerable collateral damage. The SEALs shoot and kill several unarmed civilians, and show only fleeting concern that they have done so.
Greenwald’s omission of CIA torture from his description of who perpetrates the violence in Zero Dark Thirty is telling, because it is that fact – American responsibility for many of the most troubling actions depicted in the film – that makes Zero Dark Thirty far more complicated than Greenwald allows.
The fact that Zero Dark Thirty puts the implements of torture firmly in American hands points to a larger, more important aspect of the debate this film inspires. Far more important than the question of whether torture works or not is the question of whether, regardless of torture’s utility, the United States should use brutal interrogation methods. The strong argument against torture is that it is immoral in any situation, independent of the results. I think this is probably the position of most critics who rely on the weaker argument – that torture never works. Presumably if it were shown that a program of torture, widespread enough to identify patterns and trends in coerced information, actually did produce reliable results, most critics would not simply say, “Well, in that case….” They would remain morally opposed to torture, because it is immoral on any terms.
If the fundamental immorality of torture is at the center of the discussion, then Zero Dark Thirty becomes a movie that asks whether the rewards of hunting and killing bin Laden were worth the costs. It doesn’t ask this question explicitly at any point, but I think it does implicitly. The ending of the movie, which even Alex Gibney likes so much, is as ambivalent as the ending of The Graduate. (Watch the movie before you dismiss that comparison). In both films, it’s not at all clear what the protagonist is thinking and whether the realization of a long-sought goal is satisfying or empty.
That is the sort of moral terrain that Zero Dark Thirty maps. It is far more uneven than the flat topography that Greenwald describes. There are plenty of reasonable criticisms to make of this movie, but simply calling it “pro-torture” sidelines the difficult question that Zero Dark Thirty suggests: how far are we willing to go in prosecuting the “war on terror,” and at what cost?