The new movie about the hunting-down of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, is still in the top five at the box office, thanks to the judicious timing of its wide release to coincide with Jessica Chastain’s Golden Globe win as Best Actress and the announcement of the movie’s five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It also happens to be the subject of attention in Washington, which creates some negative publicity but also stirs up buzz and curiosity at the same time. The controversy over its clear implication that torture helped the CIA track down bin Laden has not hurt ticket sales: it has raked in $78.6 million and counting, and Time deems it "poised to become the highest-grossing movie" of its director's career -- and this is a director who has specialized in action pictures.
Obviously, a lot more people will see this movie than saw director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s previous film, the character study and war drama The Hurt Locker, the little-movie-that-could: a film made on less than half the budget of Zero Dark Thirty, and a film which has, to this day, the smallest total box office take of any Best Picture-Oscar-winner. Both these Bigelow films derive from Boal’s journalism, as all of his movie credits – including the article that inspired the splendid Paul Haggis film In the Valley of Elah – stem from his reporting on the U.S. military or security apparatus. The Hurt Locker emerged from what Boal witnessed as an embedded reporter in Iraq; similarly, his latest script most likely reflects with accurate faithfulness the information shared with him by CIA sources. Some people have made a big stink over those CIA briefings and demanded to know exactly what the CIA shared with Boal. This has led to the release of an interview transcript through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded conservative group Judicial Watch (whose outrage seems to stem from the filmmakers’ Democratic affiliation), as well as to a letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin to the acting director of the CIA, requesting all pertinent documents on how the film team was briefed.
But what the ruckus obscures is the one-sided nature this action thriller was set up to have from the start. Since Boal himself was embedded with the military in 2004, he has already been influenced by the ridiculous practice of embedding – the only one on offer by the Pentagon at the time and the only one they’ll offer in the future, since the mainstream media bought it hook, line, and sinker. The Alice-in-Wonderland logic of embedding, which pretends truth can be even remotely glimpsed when a reporter is immersed in only one group’s point-of-view in a bitter and hugely complex conflict, had a virulent effect on Iraq War reporting -- and there’s research to back up just how pathetic that reporting became.
Nonetheless, thanks to the power of artistic imagination and sensibility, Boal’s script for The Hurt Locker still led to a very nuanced film which many of us felt was a humanistic cautionary tale that respected individual warriors while criticizing what war does to them. Lightning has not struck twice, however, and Zero Dark Thirty does not inherit its predecessor’s wisdom just by mimicking its attention to details. In the filmmakers’ desire to unearth every step of the bin Laden manhunt, they have overlooked the concept of balance (or convinced themselves that refraining from commenting on their subject matter is the same thing). Boal probably knows more about the inscrutability of truth than some of his moviemaking peers – his educational background is in Philosophy – but he does not seem worried that becoming the confidante for CIA officials could possibly skew his view. He did not, after all, counter the high-level access he got to CIA officials by ‘embedding’ himself with, say, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International, or the Red Cross, World Court, or UN Commission on Human Rights. Nor did Boal hang out with the staff at the European Court of Human Rights – the court which, a week before Zero Dark Thirty opened, set a precedent by ruling in favor of German citizen Khaled El-Masri’s lawsuit that the CIA broke the law in subjecting him to torture.
So it is small wonder that Boal serves up Dan, the CIA torture specialist portrayed in the film by Australian actor Jason Clarke, as rational, decent, and perfectly capable of going back to paper-pushing when he’s done stripping Muslims’ clothes off. At no point is Dan conveyed as sadistic or out-of-control: his actions are deliberate. Moreover, he and Maya, the dedicated CIA protagonist played by Chastain, get along fine; Maya’s female colleague (Jennifer Ehle) even chit-chats with her about how Maya and Dan should “hook up”. Granted, Maya is initially very disturbed to see Dan inflicting a smorgasbord of pain and suffering on a detainee – waterboarding, sexual humiliation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, starvation, enclosure in a sealed wooden box the size of a suitcase (a tactic almost identical to one used on slaves in Django Unchained.) But she makes no complaint over the actions or the scars and welts on the prisoner’s body. In fact, she eventually becomes a torturer herself, fully accepting waterboarding and employing henchmen to punch prisoners on her command to ‘enhance’ her interrogation. It seems the operatives’ only real concern about torture comes later on, in reaction to President Obama’s public disavowal of it; they look uncomfortable when it sounds like the rules are going to change. “Don’t be the last person holding a dog-collar,” Dan warns Maya when he gets out of the racket.
At the same time, the film rewards CIA certainty that detainees are withholding information in the face of denials. Though one detainee who is tortured becomes so distraught he starts jabbering nonsense – thus underscoring experts’ assertions we’ve heard in real life that torture leads to unreliable information -- this moment is unlikely to stick with viewers. It is not a plot point, and certainly the agents are not worried about getting false leads (though even Shakespeare understood four centuries ago the uselessness of torture)1. What will impact the audience much more is that the same detainee who is tortured so much finally does reveal important information. Yes, he’s sitting at a meal with his torturers and they’re being nice to him at the time – but the implication is obviously that he ‘broke’ after the grueling succession of tortures he’d endured. Feeding him is just the follow-through phase of the torture.
And how differently the main torture victim in Zero Dark Thirty is depicted from the innocent, Egyptian-born, Chicago resident married to Reese Witherspoon in the unjustly-overlooked 2007 film Rendition. In that film, engineer Anwar (Omar Metwally), mistaken for someone else, is kidnapped from an airport terminal by the CIA and vanished to North Africa to be tortured – the script is said to be inspired by the El-Masiri case mentioned above, as well as by the similar case of Syrian-Canadian citizen Maher Arar.
In Rendition, the torture sequences are clearly empathetic to the victim, and they are seen from his point-of-view. Moreover, the CIA agent who witnesses the torture (Jake Gyllenhaal) isn’t merely uncomfortable, he’s beside himself, and he ultimately rebels against the system. By contrast, in Zero Dark Thirty, the interrogation scenes are from the interrogators’ perspective, and are part of the forward-movement of the movie: the viewer is, by dint of the dynamics of a detective story, co-opted into rooting for the interrogators. At no point do those interrogators we side with seem to have the slightest twinge of conscience (Maya’s initial discomfort is when she is green; like a kid learning how to skin a fish, she gets over it)2. And the false leads that cause delays are not shown as being the result of torture, but as understandable mistakes.
Furthermore, none of the detainees are portrayed as innocent or out-of-the-loop. While it may well be that a crime drama feels it’s necessary for dramatic economy to focus on criminals and accomplices only, the psychic effect of this emphasis is to make us side with the authorities – as our protectors – and to perceive that the world is full of dangerous hoodlums. In this case, which is no quaint PBS Mystery but a living-newspaper moment with influence over our current policy choices, this emphasis obscures the fact that the U.S. government was ‘disappearing’ people and hiding their very existence from human rights observers, that at least 100 prisoners are known to have died in U.S. custody as a result of interrogation and detention procedures during the Bush regime, that even some American citizens in custody have been subjected to torture, and that the Bush Administration kept scores of inmates imprisoned at Guantánamo for years despite knowing they were innocent (including an 89-year old villager, a 14-year boy, and a journalist).
As Andy Worthington, a British reporter who researches Guantánamo, told Democracy Now in 2011 after thousands of documents from the prison were released by Wikileaks:
“all along, it’s been apparent that there’s only been a very small number of genuine terrorist suspects at Guantánamo and that the rest of the people included large numbers of innocent people who were swept up… [T]here were a lot of low-level Taliban foot soldiers in there, as well, which is really at the heart of the failure of the war on terror to make a distinction between, on the one hand, terrorists and, on the other hand, soldiers in a military conflict…Major General Dunlavey, who was the commander of Guantánamo in 2002, complained about the "Mickey Mouse" prisoners, the number of "Mickey Mouse" prisoners, as he described them, that he was being sent from Afghanistan. Here they are. Here are the farmers and the cooks and the taxi drivers and all these people who should never have been rounded up in the first place and who ended up in Guantánamo because there was no screening process.”The large number of innocent people at Guantánamo is in fact relevant to Zero Dark Thirty despite what the filmmakers might think because it’s all part of the same system, and because what’s being presented to us is also similar. First of all, Guantánamo was supposed to glean intelligence to thwart terrorism, and secondly, because it was a massive torture operation. Or in Andy Worthington’s words again: “what these files reveal in detail is that when people didn’t have anything to tell, because in so many cases they were nobodies, the Bush administration actually introduced torture techniques in an attempt to extract information from them.”
The makers of Zero Dark Thirty seem to be ignorant of this big picture, and their understanding of the actual practices of torture in the Bush Administration seems as misguided as the familiar lines dished out by the mainstream news. As Glen Greenwald wrote for Salon in 2009: “The reality — that our ‘interrogation tactics’ killed numerous detainees, who, by definition, are people confined helplessly in our custody, virtually none of whom has been convicted of anything, and at least some of whom are completely innocent — is virtually never heard as part of these debates.”
When we meet the detainee who Zero Dark Thirty will submit to an extended buffet of coercive brutality, he is already openly hostile to his torturer. He is clearly not a neutral party, but someone who actively dislikes his captors and their cause. Thus his defiance makes the audience instantly see him as their ideological enemy, perhaps even one who needs to be brought down a few pegs. I realize that other entertainments have been much more overtly pro-torture and gotten away with it (24, The Dark Knight, Inglourious Basterds), but Bigelow’s film is supposed to be a serious drama ‘based on a true story’ and this makes it potentially even more influential.
I take Bigelow at her word that she is “a lifelong pacifist” who “support[s] all protest against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind”, even if she says she’d prefer they didn’t protest her movie (as groups like the orange-jumpsuit street demonstrators World Cant Wait have been doing). She has argued in a piece in The L.A. Times that “depiction is not endorsement” and that “confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds.” This would be a valid point, except for the fact that, whether purposefully done or not, sometimes depiction is endorsement. Sometimes depiction is encouragement -- and that is why critics and scholars have spent as much time as they have decrying the depiction of violence against women in much mainstream entertainment, or the depiction of the LGBT community in ways that promulgate gay-bashing (there being a big difference between Cruising and Brokeback Mountain), or the depiction of sadistic murders in ways that make them seem cool, or the glamorization of battle, or various other media trends that harm society. It's all a matter of tone.
Bigelow goes on to state that “War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.” That is a noble sentiment, but where does Bigelow think she showed those consequences in her film? Zero Dark Thirty is no Casualties of War. Sure, she rightly avoids an overtly rah-rah-rah tone, and she doesn’t end on a triumphant peal but on a somber, quiet note. And Maya is consistently grim and joyless. But all these CIA operatives merely seem to be doing their jobs; their conduct is normalized by their banality, and moral considerations don’t seem to come into it. Unlike Sergeant William James in The Hurt Locker, who demonstrably goes a little crazy under the pressures of an impossible war, these characters always maintain an aura of professionalism and rationality.
Boal has alleged that the “torture scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental”, which is in the eye of the beholder, since each type of torture shown is quite brief and the extent of the prisoner’s suffering is not fore-grounded. But he also adds that “what the film does over the course of two hours is show the complexity of the debate.” Now, this extraordinary statement bears no relationship whatsoever to the actual movie playing in theaters. As journalist Jane Mayer (the author of the torture exposé The Dark Side) remarks in The New Yorker, the movie “doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned.” If Boal thinks he’s showing a debate, it must be a debate between those who believe in torture – the ones he shows – and some invisible opponents he assumes must be answered. None of the characters mention that proscriptions against torture have been codified in fundamental international and U.S. documents for decades; it’s hard to tell if they even know. Mayer underscores the irresponsibility and inaccuracy of the movie’s lack of criticism of torture:
“the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue—again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.”By positing that torture helped the CIA track down bin Laden while at the same time taking an uncritical stance toward the practice, the filmmakers have drawn a great deal of ire. (Recently, noted activist-actors David Clennon, Ed Asner, and Martin Sheen have brought the fight to the Academy, though Sheen has since said he didn't mean to oppose the film per se, just torture.) Bigelow and Boal may very well find torture abhorrent themselves, but if they do, they’ve really bent over backwards to hide it. What seems more likely is that their outrage has diminished because of their closeness to the culture which did those deeds. This comes out in small ways. Concerned about investigations, Boal has now enlisted the help of Jeffrey Smith, the attorney who represented Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara – hardly scions in the cause of human rights. Smith also happens to be former CIA general counsel, so Boal is picking an apple not far from the tree. Meanwhile, Bigelow’s L.A. Times piece defending her film salutes the “ordinary Americans who fought bravely” to defeat bin Laden “even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.” She may call herself a pacifist, but no pacifist I know has so much equanimity about crossing ‘moral lines’ like these.
Ironically, Bigelow’s chief public defense of the portrayal of torture in the film is that we need artists to show us unsightly parts of our history, that sweeping our shameful deeds under the rug serves no-one. This is a remarkably specious argument, since it must be clear to her that the complaints against the movie by opponents of torture are not over the fact that it shows torture, but the way it shows torture. And it is a pretty spry contortionist’s act to a) claim moral high ground as a courageous truth-teller revealing dark secrets, while b) overtly championing the people and system you claim to be critiquing, and c) simultaneously adopting a non-judgmental, neutral-observer pose.
L.A. Weekly film critic Scott Foundas writes in his thumbs-up review of Zero Dark Thirty that “Bigelow and Boal come not to judge but to show”, but why would anyone assume those are the only two choices? There are actually ways to tackle problematic, raw-nerve historical subjects without being preachy or black-and-white. In fact, The Hurt Locker had seemed like an exemplar of that type. Beyond that, the British TV movies Bloody Sunday (2002) and Battle for Haditha (2007) are even more complete paradigms of that achievement. Both are documentary-style, ensemble-oriented features which follow characters with viscerally-divergent viewpoints. Both are scrupulous recreations of actual incidents, and portraits of how certain cultures (i.e. counter-terrorism forces and the military) breed certain mind-sets. But these two Brit pics don’t take objectivity so literally that they seem blasé about atrocities. It’s true that Bloody Sunday and Battle for Haditha are both about senseless, avoidable massacres (Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972 and Haditha, Iraq in 2005) and that they were both tragedies whose victims were innocent civilians, whereas Zero Dark Thirty is something altogether different. But the point is an aesthetic one: there are precedents already in the can to prove that reprehensible actions need not be filmed with a moralistic, condemnatory tone in order to make a moral argument. Those two fine U.K. films try to understand all their characters, even the worst of the bunch, but they do not accept all of their actions.
It is not to suggest that movies should talk down to the audience to say that filmmakers really need to think about media psychology more. It is merely to acknowledge that the images they create have extremely powerful effects on our psyches. Perhaps none of the CIA sources Boal interviewed had any lasting problem with torture and Bigelow was intent on verisimilitude, so the torture isn’t protested in the film. But when those characters are also the good guys in the movie, when the active protagonist who pursues her goal and finally achieves it is presented as a positive force (not as an anti-hero like, say, Michael Corleone in The Godfather films), then our human psyches taking in the film will not generally compute “wait a minute, remember the torture? Didn’t those people break a truck-load of laws? I feel ambivalent about this woman who is so morally compromised.” Instead, the human mind will compute: “The end justifies the means.”
It’s true that Bigelow is, as she declares, “part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition”, but that same Hollywood community has also made plenty of movies that the Pentagon loves – which is why the Pentagon and Hollywood have been such happy collaborators for so many decades. Likewise, Hollywood and the CIA have also been very willing partners on many entertainment projects--not just the current crop of prominent ones. This enduring marriage makes a mockery of MPAA President Christopher Dodd’s warning to Washington that the fuss about CIA cooperation with Zero Dark Thirty might frighten the military or other government agencies from working with Hollywood in the future. That is highly unlikely; those agencies know a good thing when they see it. Last year the U.S. military literally commissioned its own action movie, Act of Valor; it has been developing its own video games since 2002 and now has about two dozen games in use; and there is even an entertainment liaison office in Los Angeles for the DOD and Armed Forces.
And when CIA officials cooperated with Zero Dark Thirty, they were certainly not acting as whistleblowers. It wasn’t “X” in a trenchcoat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial whispering secrets his boss might have him killed for. No, CIA big guns met with Bigelow and Boal, on record and above board, “to ensure an appropriate portrayal of the Agency’s mission as well as the dedication of the men and women of the CIA who played a key part in the success of the mission,” as they told their Senate overseers. The CIA maintains that the relationship with the Zero Dark Thirty team was nice and cozy, and included the filmmakers agreeing to let the agency read drafts of the screenplay. This runs counter to Boal’s assertions, since he denies that he ever let the CIA officially vet the script, but even if he did maintain the independence he has avowed, it’s not like there’s anything in the movie that might offend the agency.
The letter sent to the CIA’s acting director by Senate Select Committee chair Feinstein and ex-officio members Levin and McCain asks an interesting question: whether the CIA agents who met with the filmmakers lied to them about the role of torture in the hunt for bin Laden. This is one trail worth following, because if it is discovered that these Hollywood liberals were in fact guided into making the kind of exculpatory movie they made in order to influence public opinion – and perhaps to protect torturers from future prosecution – then this is a scandal that could last for some time.
One can only hope that the movie might lead to very different results than those which its depiction of torture would otherwise engender. This week, John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst and counter-terrorism consultant to national media outlets, will be sentenced for disclosing classified information to the press after pleading guilty to one of five counts against him in October. Kiriakou was the first government official to expose the use of waterboarding during the Bush regime, revealing the actions of another CIA officer to a New York Times reporter in order to bring to light how al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times. In other words, Kiriakou has been prosecuted because he was a whistleblower about U.S. torture – whereas none of his colleagues who actually committed the war crime of torture have been so much as indicted. Nor are they likely to be, since Attorney General Eric Holder concluded a three-year investigation last August by declaring that no interrogators would be prosecuted for the abuse of prisoners (even though the abuse resulted in corpses).
It is obviously a grave injustice that these people not only get to walk away free but also get their own movie. (Where’s the movie in which Kiriakou is the hero?) But still, if it turns out that Zero Dark Thirty was derived from lies told by CIA officers to shape a narrative they wanted to see, maybe that could make at least the more conscientious members of Hollywood less eager to cooperate with them in the future. And one can always hope that such revelations could bring on renewed calls to prosecute the torturers -- and repercussions for those who may have pulled a psy-op on the American people by manipulating some gullible filmmakers.
1 In The Merchant of Venice Portia uses the knowledge for casual metaphor in a love dialogue:
“I fear you speak upon the rack,
Where men enforced do speak anything.”
2 This analogy is not meant to advocate fishing as a harmless activity. Scientific research has proven that fish feel pain.