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Mike Versus ZERO DARK THIRTY

January 24, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty is a very well done movie that I don’t think I like.

Everyone with electricity knows what Zero Dark Thirty is about, even if they’ve never heard of the movie; the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden (called Usama in the movie, a nice touch pointing to the more traditional translation in intelligence circles.1) I’m not an expert on the particulars of the manhunt for OBL, and I initially resisted seeing this movie since I feel it’s too soon, and that if I had problems with Disney buying the rights to Navy SEAL Team Six then wouldn’t that make me a bit of a hypocrite if I let another multinational entertainment company handle the marketing instead?

ImageAfter the controversy over whether or not the film defends torture erupted, though – and after watching people whose opinions I deeply respect come out with completely different takes on it – I decided that this was something I had to see myself.

On the technical merits, this film is a success, shot and cut very much in the style Kathryn Bigalow used in The Hurt Locker, which I was never as over the moon about as so many people were but that I recognized as a quality film. Every terror attack in the film, and there are several, hits with the brutality and utter unexpectedness that terror attacks in the real world do, albeit in the comfort of a movie theater in which no one actually dies. There are perfect subtle touches, like a dead character’s photo with a living character being their desktop wallpaper, that we only glimpse for a second instead of being given a long, lingering shot of. It fits the pseudo-documentary style of the film, creating a sense that the events are real even though I am sure the characters I’m watching are composites at best.

Judged purely as fiction, as art, Zero Dark Thirty is well-acted, well-written, well-shot, well-edited… ticking every checkmark a movie should. The last leg of the movie, a recreation of the raid on the Bin Laden compound, is the standout of the film; it even makes a point to remind us that even if killing Bin Laden was of questionable use in preventing further attacks, raiding the hard drives and files of the most wanted terrorist on the planet undoubtedly saved lives.

Except this isn’t pure fiction or fiction as allegory as the late, great Battlestar Galactica was. The frame of this movie – starting with 9/11 and ending with Bin Laden in a bag – are events I read about in the news, not watched at the multiplex. This is where my troubles with Zero Dark Thirty began, as did so many other people’s.

The bone of contention is that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture. This, I’m with Glenn Kenny and Devin Faraci on; it’s made clear throughout the film that torture leads nowhere but down a black hole. Waterboarding does not produce information; stress positions do not save lives. I don’t know if we are clearly meant to sympathize with the first detainee that we meet, but after applying simple actor-reversal in my head I concluded that it was intentional, since if the actors were in reversed roles I still would have felt the same way: to sympathize with a man holding out against the brutal and horrific punishment meted out by Dan.

Maya is our viewpoint character, and she’s clearly uncomfortable with the torture, even though she complies with the instructions of her senior agent and is therefore an accomplice to his crimes. She’s the one who pushes the notion of it away, and once she uses misdirection and misinformation to get the detainee to give up information, that’s when the thin lead surfaces that sends her inexorably towards Bin Laden’s corpse in a bodybag. At this point I was going “okay, this film is clearly not endorsing torture…”

… and then the film shows Maya, on her own, with no prodding from Dan, waterboarding a subject. That’s when the ill feeling settled in.

ImageMaya’s waterboarding doesn’t lead to any actionable intelligence, so the film holds firm in saying that torture did not pay. That I agree with. But whether or not being a torturer pays? On this, the film hits an inevitable, jarring bump in the narrative that it never truly recovers from.

Narratively, the movie wants you to buy into Maya as the viewpoint character, so to have her suddenly participate in torture after she proves its ineffectiveness undercuts the message that the character is intended to convey – that torture failed where classic tradecraft and detective work succeeded. The rest of the film sails smoothly on its way, on its preset course, illustrating that the torture program not only didn’t help, but actively harmed nearly all attempts to gather intelligence from that point on. But by having Maya as not just an accomplice but as an initiator, it stains its own message.

But the problem is this: while it may make poor narrative sense, it is one of the most factual aspects of this film. Being a torturer may not pay, but it sure doesn’t seem to hurt. No one who participated in the endless string of black sites seen in the film suffers any real blowback for their actions – the closest anyone comes is an incidental station chief being brought low. None of the main characters goes to jail or faces a congressional hearing… just like in real life.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty and why I was hesitant to see it. The people who created the program and implemented the program are walking around in broad daylight, right now, as you read this. They’re free as birds. We try to forget it, but this movie won’t let us – but it also never seems to really care. Maya gets sad and cries a bit and that’s that. That’s the penance for pouring water down a man’s throat.

At the same time, it’s hard to fault Zero Dark Thirty for portraying, accurately, the failure of the U.S.2 to come to grips with the horrors it performed in the aftermath of 9/11. Bigalow and Zero Dark Thirty’s production company Alliance Atlantis can’t really be faulted for the crimes they portray, since they did happen. What I can fault the film for is muddying its own narrative.

Image Far be it from me to mansplain to an Oscar winning director – a female Oscar winning director – how to make a movie, but I’d have the same problems with the film if Kathryn Bigalow were a man, so here we go anyways. It would have been a far better narrative choice to have Maya as an accomplice to Dan’s crimes rather than initiating her own. We all know via Stanley Milgram’s Experiment 183 that decent people will do horrible things in deference to authority. This would have allowed Maya to retain her morally compromised stance whilst letting her still by sympathetic – since Maya is our stand-in, and since, in a democracy, we are all morally compromised by an unpunished crime. The scene where Maya waterboards a detainee is not even ten seconds and it comes close to ruining the movie if not doing it outright.

This is the chief flaw in Zero Dark Thirty – it’s neither all the way fact, nor utterly fiction. It tries to clear the two stools and doesn’t fully succeed in serving both masters. Normally I’d write off a movie playing fast and loose with facts in service to its characters and its thematic point of view, but all that was at stake in The King’s Speech and The Social Network were the private lives of the richest and most powerful people on the planet, and these people can take their lumps.4 What’s at stake in Zero Dark Thirty is how we relate to one of the bleakest chapters in the history of Western civilization, a series of events so young it wouldn’t be allowed to drink yet if it were a person. We can’t sugarcoat the events or the fact that key players in them are free when they shouldn’t be – and Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. But we can’t wave off the horrors of black sites and torture either, and Zero Dark Thirty could have stood far firmer on this point.

1 I only know this, admittedly, because I read Queen & Country by Greg Rucka.

2 And my country too.

3 Who conducted highly unethical experiments that nonetheless furthered the cause of science, and a film about that would make me just as queasy.

4 Like anyone gives two hoots what a wet bag of garbage like Mark Zuckerberg goes through, as he sleeps on a pile of money that he made off of treating people’s privacy as a fence to leap over.

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